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Editorial: College costs

Financially, July has been a mixed bag for college students in Massachusetts.

For students attending Massachusetts’ public universities and colleges, including Greenfield Community College, the good news came first in the text of the state budget that included about 17 percent more money for higher education. That increase allows the state system to keep tuition costs from climbing yet another year.

We’d like to think it’s an indication that our elected lawmakers are beginning to recognize that putting more of the financial burden on students and their families is taking the wrong direction, particularly when you add in all of the other costs, like room and board and fees to the college bill.

As good as this news is — and we want to encourage the Legislature to keep supporting the state’s higher education system — it’s tempered by the U.S. Congress’ inability to keep student loan rates through the federally subsidized Stafford loans program at a reasonable figure.

Here’s what has happened:

Rates for Stafford loans had been under a five-year cap, with loans carrying an interest rate of 3.4 percent. Busy with internecine bickering, Congress allowed that agreement to expire and the rate jumped to 6.8 percent as of July 1. This increase is going to affect 7 million students who depend on the Stafford loans and there low rate.

As seems always to be the case these days in our nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats and the respective chambers they control are split on what to do. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a market-based plan, tied to the 10-year Treasury borrowing rate. That, too, is the foundation for what President Obama has suggested, though there are differences in what the House and president want.

Senate Democrats, on the other hand, want to freeze the rates at 3.4 percent for the next year or two as Congress continues to take a look at college costs.

What needs to be driving the solution is keeping loan rates in check and consistent. That’s why a market-based approach, where the interest rate can fluctuate, is not such a great deal. While students in Massachusetts’ public colleges aren’t seeing their tuition go up this year, the same isn’t true for the other 49 states or at private colleges in all 50 states. Allowing the interest rate to climb only adds more financial burden and stress to students and families.

Congress needs to look at the big picture, one that includes the fact that student loan debt has hit the $1 trillion mark, and hold to the old rate.

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