Student loan debate hits national spotlight

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With current student loan interest rates set to double in July without government intervention, both politicians and students have thrust the issue into the national spotlight.

While the issue has divided both major political parties, the possibility of an increase from the current 3.4 percent rate has prompted students to protest against student loan debt as politicians have begun to recognize it as a hot button issue.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Friday passage of a $5.9 million Republican bill to extend the current rate on Stafford loans already faces veto threats from President Barack Obama, and it appears unlikely that the parties will pass extensions without a compromise.

But students hoping to nudge politicians into making a decision about the issue have organized protests against student loan debt in response to the possibility of a rate increase. Wednesday’s $1 Trillion Day of Action — named after the aggregate amount of loan debt accrued by college students —  saw students from around the country gather to protest the issue, including students from UC Santa Cruz.

“Student debt is honestly completely out of control in this country,” said UC Santa Cruz student Maria Jennings, who participated in the Wednesday protests, in an email. “The fact that it’s exceeded one trillion dollars is just another slap in the face to students who are racking up these unbelievably high amounts of debt to get an education.”

Jennings said the campus’ Student Labor Action Project — an organization based around challenging institutions that perpetuate economic and social injustice — visualized the massive scope of the issue by putting together a 250 foot long paper thermometer illustrating the debt’s size.

In April, the UC Berkeley chapter of CALPIRG took similar action by participating in a national day of action against student loan debt in the hopes of bringing the issue to the attention of California politicians.

Now, recognizing the massive effect the rate increase would have on students, politicians at the national level have spoken out strongly in favor of extending the current rate. Obama appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” Tuesday night to perform a “slow jam” with the television host urging the American public to back the rate extension.

But Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s campaign contends that Obama’s focus on the issue has not translated into what college students really want — jobs.

“With one of every two recent college graduates unemployed or underemployed, President Obama won’t be able to skate by on empty rhetoric and campaign promises — he’ll have to run on his failed record of high unemployment, skyrocketing gas prices, and mountains of new debt,” said Romney spokesperson Amanda Henneberg in a press release.

Still, the issue currently remains politically deadlocked. On May 8, U.S. Senate Democrats will vote on legislation that would extend the current rate by closing Medicare tax loopholes for Americans making over $250,000 annually.

Damian Ortellado is the lead higher education reporter.