The 2014 midterm elections are looming, and so is the date student-loan interest rates are set to double.
Unless Congress acts by July 1, interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The fallout from such an increase could be substantial for college students.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan effort to keep student-loan interest rates down seemed doomed from the start as Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid said it could never pass. A vote has yet to happen.
Many politicians in Washington are already using the student-loan drama as a possible 2014 midterm campaign issue, sending out press releases and releasing statements.
For example, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year, has made student-loan rates a priority. On Wednesday, he spoke on the Senate floor urging his colleagues to reach a compromise. Earlier this month, he said he opposed a variable rate on student loans—tying interest rates to market rates like mortgages. He said that such a plan “puts Arkansas students’ chance at a college education and financial stability in jeopardy.”
Minnesota Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, is also up for re-election next year. While various political pundits say Franken is likely a shoe-in for victory, he has introduced legislation to make the financial aid process more straightforward.
Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican, sent out a release earlier this month explaining that he, along with 50 other congressmen from both parties, wrote a letter to Senate Leaders Reid and Mitch McConnell, a Republican, asking that the loan rate be tied to the market value.
No doubt, student-loan debt should be a hot-button topic in 2014, but do enough people care about the growing student-loan crisis to make it one? Political scientists don’t think so.
“My brief sense is that it won’t be a major issue, or an issue at all,” Villanova political science professor John Johannes told TakePart.”
He said that millennials surprisingly don’t turn out to vote nearly as much as baby boomers. Secondly, he said voters usually don’t vote on one specific issue like student loans.
“Voters generally take a much broader, albeit poorly defined, perspective,” he said. “If there are specific issues, the primary ones surely will be the economy, unemployment, and maybe healthcare—not student loans.”
Still, the federal student-loan debt is nearly $1 trillion, and it doesn’t seem to be decreasing. Johannes said that there is no electorally or politically relevant way to react to student-loan issues.
“How does the voter develop his or her voting calculus?” he said. “Whom does he or she blame for student-loan rates? President or Congress; House or Senate; Democrats or Republicans? Do the voters have any real idea about where the responsibility should be focused for high (or low) loan rates? Not in any operative way. Casting a vote on the basis of student-loan rates or student debt is just too hard, and too remote, to matter.”
But millennials can make student loans a campaign issue—if they want to do so.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has certainly made it a political issue ever since she arrived on Capitol Hill. She launched a petition on Moveon.org, asking people to sign if they want students to have the same interest rates on loans as big banks. So far, the petition has more than 487,000 signatures with a goal of 500,000.
Jay Barth, chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., says that student loans could become a major issue in 2014, but he also wonders how it will resonate.
“It’s clear that Democrats nationally will attempt to use this issue to emphasize that Republicans have the wrong priorities,” he said. “And, it’s clearly the type of issue that is understandable and directly relevant to a wide swath of Americans. The key question is whether it’s an issue that has the emotional power to really break through and move voters. I’m dubious whether it does.”