“Crisis” Averted on Backs of Poor?

This morning, I was greeted with the news that the Senate has reached a compromise on student loan rates, likely averting the “crisis” of having rates on “subsidized” loans – those most targeted toward low-income students – double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Of course this wasn’t really a crisis. The increase would only have affected new loans, would have just added about $6 to monthly payments based on the average yearly subsidized loan, and might even have been slightly useful because the primary problems in higher ed are massive over-consumption and price inflation driven by cheap aid. If we want to fix those things, we should be phasing out price and consumption-distorting aid programs.

Suppose, though, you think federal aid is necessary to make sure college is affordable for the truly needy. I assume that most aid supporters – including those who voted for the compromise in the Senate – would say that that is the top goal. So why, then, does the compromise set the same interest rates for subsidized loans as unsubsidized, the latter being accessible to anyone regardless of income? Wouldn’t a top priority be to keep the subsidized rates lower? (Subsidized loans would, importantly, still have interest covered by the government while students are in school.)

Maybe information explaining this will come out as more news breaks, but it seems quite possible that the main objective is not, actually, to help the most needy, but to appear to help anyone who wants to go to college, regardless of income or need. Maybe it is to curry favor with as many voters as possible. That hypothesis not only seems to fit the current case, but overall federal involvement in higher education, which involves not just Pell Grants or subsidized loans largely focused on the poor, but unsubsidized loans that have no income cap; tax credit programs skewed toward the well-to-do; and a whole perverse aid process that favors those people who know when to buy homes, time raises, and other savvy tactics to maximize what they get from schools and taxpayers.

If the goal were really to help the truly needy, it seems the Feds would have a single grant or loan program aimed squarely at people earning, say, 200 percent of the poverty line. But, as this compromise seems to further confirm, that’s probably not the primary goal. Maximizing votes is, which is exactly what we should expect from politicians who, like all of us, want first and foremost to get what’s best for themselves. It’s also why, for everyone’s sake, we should demand that the Feds stay completely out of student aid.