DFW college students call on lawmakers to keep their interest rates from rising

FORT WORTH -- Jay Johnson doesn't like to borrow money.

Yet the Texas Wesleyan University student relies on loans to help pay for his college education.

"It is extremely tough to pay for school," he said.

When he's not in class, Johnson said, he works for an affordable-housing development company. But he still has to file for financial aid each year.

"That's when it hits you," Johnson said, adding that he wishes that he didn't need loans.

Johnson's plight was spotlighted this week as President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talked about the need for Congress to extend caps that would keep interest rates on certain government loans from doubling, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Obama took his campaign to colleges across the country -- and, not so surprisingly, to those in states considered "must win" in November. His message: 7.4 million students' debt will increase by $1,000, on average, over the life of their loans if Congress doesn't act.

Not to be outdone, Romney told reporters that he supports temporarily extending the caps on the federally subsidized Stafford loans for low- and middle-income students. To do so, though, leaders in the House and Senate must find a way to cover the nearly $6 million price tag.

Many college students say this issue is getting attention just as they are filing paperwork for tuition bills that come due during the presidential election's final stretch. They stress that this is not a partisan issue but a financial one.

Besides working one, two or even three jobs to pay bills, many students must also bolster their finances with loans. Thousands pay for tuition, textbooks and school supplies with the Stafford loans.

"This should not be a Republican or Democratic issue," said Hector Perez, 20, who attends Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus. "This should just be an American issue -- helping students to further America's future."

Metroplex impact

Stafford loans are the most common federal loans used by students.

At the University of Texas at Arlington, 18,047 students relied on the loans in 2010-11. That's more than half of the 32,000 or so students who were enrolled there that fall.

UTA will have about as many or slightly more loan recipients this year, said Karen Krause, executive director of financial aid, scholarships and veterans affairs.

At the University of North Texas in Denton, 13,335 undergraduate students have used Stafford loans this academic year. That's about 4 in 10 students enrolled at UNT this spring.

At Tarrant County College, which has much lower tuition, 8,167 of 63,411 students used the loans this year.

Several years ago, Democrats in Congress prevailed in placing temporary caps on the loans' interest rates. But the caps are set to expire in July.

"It was put into legislation for a specific period of time, and now midnight is striking," Krause said.

If lawmakers don't pass an extension, they could face the wrath of college students who followed the issue on TV and social media this week. Some urged their peers to contact their representatives via Twitter.

When Obama spoke at the University of North Carolina this week, students used the hashtags #dontraisemyrates or #dontdoublemyrates to deliver their views about the caps on Twitter.

The president said this week that many students who take out loans owe thousands of dollars when they graduate. The Project on Student Debt estimates that 2010 graduates carried an average of $25,250 in student loan debt. The average in Texas was $20,919.

The Project on Student Debt is an initiative by the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit that aims to make college more affordable. It is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

To push the Democratic message to that demographic -- Obama had a 34-percentage-point advantage among voters under 30 in the 2008 election -- he barnstormed colleges and went on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where he did a "slow news jam" on the subject.

Romney and many other Republicans also insisted this week that they favor the caps. The big question looming for lawmakers is how to pay for them.

The House is scheduled to vote on the issue today. Senate leaders have said they will debate the bill in May.

Loans vital for students

Jessica Hoover, a 31-year-old student at TCC Trinity River Campus, said she will file for the aid because her husband recently lost his job. Even though she has three part-time jobs -- a file clerk at a law firm, a blogger for a furniture company and a transcriber for students with special needs -- she will still need financial aid to finish her studies in radio, television, film and history.

Hoover said that if the student loan interest rate goes up to 6.8 percent, it would be higher than the rate on her mortgage.

"I pay 4.8 percent on my mortgage," she said. "In America, you need to have a higher education to have a well-paying job. If we can't afford to go to school, we are not going to get high-paying jobs."

Peter Salas Jr., a 26-year-old Republican student majoring in political science, was relieved to hear that Romney also supports the caps. Like Hoover, Salas has been attending community college and aims to transfer to a four-year university. Any loan rate increases could affect his plans.

"That's very scary to me," Salas said.

Rachel Perry, a political science major at the University of Texas at Dallas, was so moved by these issues that she helped start an advocacy group, the North Texas Student Campaign. She signs petitions about higher-education concerns and tries to remind Texas lawmakers that student loans and affordable tuition are important to young voters and their parents and grandparents.

Perry, 19, said she has relied on student loans, scholarships and earnings from her waitressing job. She said some people don't understand how important this financial break is for students.

"I've done the best I can," Perry said. "I don't need your handout. I just want you to understand that I am doing what society requires me to do to be successful in the American economy."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar