Published: Apr 28, 2012 12:00 AM
Modified: Apr 27, 2012 05:22 PM
We were proud and honored to host President Obama here last week. At Carmichael Arena, speaking without apparent use of the teleprompter, he gave a strong speech and endeared himself to the enthusiastic crowd by opening, of course, with a few casual references to Carolina basketball (“If Kendall hadn’t gotten hurt, who knows...”).
Afterward he appeared at Memorial Hall before an even more wildly cheering audience, to tape that night’s “Late Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Among other things, the president joined Fallon in a very funny “slow jam the news” bit, in which Obama addressed policy issues over a sultry, romantic R&B beat.
But while much of the president’s visit took on a light-hearted tone, he was here to talk about a very serious issue: student loan debt.
Tuition and associated costs of attending college keep going up, putting higher education further out of reach for more young (and some not-so-young) people. Student loans are the only way many people can afford to go to college.
Two-thirds of undergraduates use loans to help finance their education, and they walk out of commencement with a diploma and about $25,000 in loan debt. Student loan debt stands at a staggering $1 trillion. It now exceeds credit card debt.
That burden puts our brightest and most energetic young people in a deep hole before they even begin their careers and families. The debt burden renders many of them unable to buy a home, or even a car, or to start a small business. So much of their income has to go to filling that hole that it may take many years before they can actually start to build something up.
The current interest rate on student loans, 3.4 percent, is set to expire on July 1 unless Congress acts. If Congress does nothing, the interest rate will double overnight, to 6.8 percent.
Here, and at college campuses in Iowa and Colorado last week, Obama urged all his listeners to demand that Congress take swift action to prevent the interest rate hike.
We’ve heard the argument that it is the availability of low-interest loans that allows colleges and universities to keep raising tuition. The implication would be that if you make loans more difficult and expensive to get – in effect, reducing demand – then colleges and universities would have to bring tuitions down.
Frankly, that’s a difficult scenario to envision happening in the real world.
President Obama was right. The cost and availability of college isn’t important only to students and their families. Keeping college costs down and making higher education available for as many students as possible is essential to the long-term success of North Carolina and the United States as a whole.
A sustainable and growing economy can’t run on a population saddled with ever-increasing debt. Dollars going to pay off student loans aren’t going to start businesses, develop technologies and create innovative solutions. And in an increasingly competitive world, those nations whose citizens are the best educated and most globally aware will be the ones that come out ahead.
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