The Student Loan Crisis: Rate Hike Looms on July 1

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If the looming student loan crisis were a movie, the title might be something like "Fiscal Cliff, part II: Summer Break Edition." As a recap, here's the basic story: On July 1, interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans are set to double, going from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. This rate change would impact an estimated 7 million college students, making college educations more expensive at a time when student loan debt is already crippling the finances of millions of workers.

Much like the fiscal cliff crisis, this year's march toward higher student loan interest rates has been slow and inexorable, a churning machine of bureaucratic incompetence that millions of Americans are dreading but feel powerless to stop. And, like the earlier fiscal cliff crisis, the justifications and soft-pedaling have already commenced. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate House, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, one group that could conceivably head off this crisis, has suggested that we will probably go off the student loan cliff, noting that legislators "probably can't get anything done this week." Meanwhile, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) has volunteered that it would be "pretty easy" to reset student loan interest rates after they go up.

Of course, as sequestration demonstrated, undoing an economic crisis is easier said than done.

It's not as if there aren't any plans on the table: Congress and the president have both proposed linking student loan interest rates to the interest rates on 10-year Treasury notes. Congress' plan would place caps on rates, so that subsidized loans couldn't go above 8.5 percent and unsubsidized loans couldn't go above 10.5 percent. Unfortunately, the congressional plan would also allow rates to fluctuate, which means that a student's interest payments would rise or fall, depending on the Treasury rate.

President Obama's proposal offered fixed rates but did not propose caps, which means that students would always pay the same rate, but that rate might be really high. On the other hand, the president's plan would limit loan debt repayments to 10 percent of a borrower's income, and would retire student loan debt after a borrower has made payments for 20 years.

While the crisis is coming to a head right now, its impacts have been building for years -- and extend far beyond the four years of college. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, student loan debt slows economic growth as college graduates struggling to pay off their loans are often unable to buy cars, buy homes, or otherwise engage the economy.

And then, of course, there's the anxiety that comes with owing lots of money in a sluggish economy. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, 20 percent of all adults aged 20 and older carry some form of student loan debt, and 57 percent of them are worried about how they're going to pay it off. Put another way, over 10 percent of all adults are worried about their student loan debt.

This problem is especially hard on low earners: 72 percent of people making less than $25,000 per year say that they are worried about their ability to repay. By comparison, only 36 percent of those bringing home more than $100,000 report having the same worries. In context, it's hardly surprising that American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps students with their loans, recently made a horror film about the looming loan terror.

As I've written in the past, there are numerous ways to keep your student loan debt down, but if you're facing serious debt now, the big question is how to pay. With that in mind, here's a round-up of some of our favorite ways to cut your student loan payments.

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The Student Loan Crisis: Rate Hike Looms on July 1

Many school districts are desperate for teachers to work in low-income schools or to teach in high-demand programs. In return for teaching for five years, college graduates may be able to get large portions of their loans forgiven. The exact payoff depends on the type of loan, but the benefits can be huge: Stafford loans may qualify for up to $17,500 in repayment, while Perkins loans may qualify for full forgiveness.

Facing huge amounts of student loan debt? Eager to see the world? Desperate to fill out your resume? Look no further! The Peace Corps will cancel up to 70% of Perkins student loan debt. When it comes to Stafford and consolidated loans, the deal is not quite as good -- the Peace Corps will allow full deferment for up to 27 months, but won't pay off loans. Right now, though, spending a couple of years filling out a resume and waiting to enter the job market could be a very attractive option!

For new grads who are interested in volunteering, but aren't interested in traveling halfway around the world, Americorps and VISTA could be attractive options. VISTA places volunteers with nonprofit groups, while Americorps places them in a variety of jobs, from teaching school to environmental cleanup. In return for a one-year stint, workers in both programs get stipends of up to $7,400, plus $4,725 to pay off loans.

The military offers some outstanding education resources, including the Montgomery GI Bill, which can cover more than half of the cost of a college education. For graduates facing heavy loan debts, the Army National Guard has some particularly nice options, including the Student Loan Repayment Program, which will pay up to $50,000 worth of student loans, depending upon the student's area of study.

Love working with animals, but hate being in debt? The Department of Agriculture's Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program may have the answer: Qualified applicants may receive up to $75,000 in loan forgiveness -- $25,000 per year for up to three years. The only catch is that you'll probably have to get used to living in the boonies -- participants are placed in areas that have insufficient veterinary coverage.

Veterinarians aren't the only ones who can benefit from loan forgiveness -- the government also offers some great loan forgiveness options for human doctors. Health care professionals looking to have the Northern Exposure experience might consider working with the National Health Service Corps and the Nursing Education Loan Repayment Program, both of which place medical workers in underserved regions.

Nor are small towns the only place where doctors can get their loans paid off. The National Institutes of Health will repay up to $35,000 per year in loans for qualified clinical researchers, and many hospitals will help repay loans for doctors who agree to work in physical therapy, among other career tracks.

As many young law school grads have been discovering, a Juris Doctor degree is not the moneymaker it once was. Luckily, some states, including Maryland, offer loan repayment aid for state employees who have studied law. For that matter, there are several programs that will help pay off loans for lawyers who work with nonprofits or public interest groups.

If worst comes to worst, you could always try escaping from your loans by literally escaping. The French Foreign Legion, for example, not only offers the opportunity to go to foreign lands, but encourages new members choose a new identity. Enlistment is for five years, and new enlistees receive roughly $1,400 per month. After serving one stint, legionnaires may apply for French citizenship, an option that may give you legal protection from your creditors, in addition to a pretty sweet state-run universal health care system.


Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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