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Student Loan Bill: “Failure Is Not an Option” Says Education Secretary Duncan

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Time is quickly running out for Congress to pass stopgap legislation that would prevent interest rates on subsidized student loan debt from doubling to 6.8 percent July 1. Failure to pass this legislation would adversely affect nearly 7.4 million new undergrad borrowers.

But surprisingly, at a time when extreme partisanship drives today's political agenda, the desire to keep the lower rates in place has broad bipartisan support. So why the delay in passing the bill? The holdup rests largely upon how to recoup the $6 billion it will cost the government to keep rates at 3.4 percent for the next year.

For Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "failure is not an option."

"Congress has been fairly dysfunctional…[but] this is a real opportunity for them to come together and do the right thing," Duncan tells The Daily Ticker in the accompanying interview. "This would be too devastating to over 7 million young people and families around the country."

While Congress seems to be on the brink of passing this legislation, Duncan is not getting his hopes up until the bill actually passes.

"I will remain doubtful until this gets done," he says. "This is not about words. This is about action."

Even if Congress agreed to a rate extension, it's only for one year. Congress would need to restructure the student loan system to avoid this issue in the future.

Secretary Duncan: College Debt Is Good Debt

More than 37 million people are currently burdened with paying back the cost of their college education.

Total student loan debt, both public and private, hit $904 billion in the first quarter of this year, up 275 percent from the same period in 2003, according to a report by the New York Fed. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says the figure has already topped $1 trillion. Both figures put the amount of total debt on student loans above the total amount of credit card debt held by all Americans.

At the same time, the delinquency rate on college loans is higher than the delinquency rate for mortgages and car loans. Ten years ago the delinquency rate was 6.13 percent; today it's 8.69 percent.

Some economists like Berkeley's Robert Reich, formerly Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary, have called the student loan crisis the next bubble to burst. Former Education Secretary under Bush Sr. William Bennett agrees. But Duncan does not. "I don't see it in the same severe terms," he says. "I think when you go to college, and very importantly graduate and when you get the diploma, we can make a very, very good case that that is the best investment you can make."

But evidence is stacking up against this notion that may have been true decades ago. A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that more than 50 percent of recent graduates are currently unemployed or underemployed. Moreover, 30 percent of those going to college these days are dropping out before they actually get their degree and are still saddled with the cost.

Yet Duncan is still convinced college is worth the cost. A perfect world would be one without any debt at all, he says, "[But] I think if there is such a thing, it is good debt."

Secretary Duncan: Amnesty for Young Illegal Immigrants Is Good for America

President Obama last Friday announced a new executive order to allow hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. to attend college and eventually work in this country. This new policy would impact more than 800,000 illegal immigrants who have lived in fear of deportation.

Duncan tells us he is "proud" of the president's new policy. He says America will benefit from having an increased labor pool of more educated and skilled labor.

Critics argue that this initiative will cause an influx of people vying for the same college education and jobs that Americans are seeking, pushing up tuition costs and making the already dismal jobs market even more competitive.

"My worry is not competition. My worry is not enough young people are graduating from high school, college and career ready," he says. "We have to educate our way to a better economy."

Tell us what you think!

(Update: The current bill will only effect subsidiized Stafford loans made to new undergrad borrowers, not Pell Grants or other Stafford loans as a previous version of this article stated.)