As far back as 2001, Congress, looking at incredibly high interest rates on federal student loans (8.25% statutory maximum on the Stafford loan, 8.5% on the PLUS loan) decided to legislate a mandatory fixed rate of 6.8% on Stafford loans beginning July 1, 2006. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to legislators to try “fixing” market prices. Prior to that legislation, Stafford and PLUS loans had variable rates of 2.3% and 3.1% + the 91-day Treasury Bill rate at the last auction in the month of May.
Fast forward to today – 2008. With the economic uncertainty, the 91-day Treasury Bill’s current rate is a shockingly low 0.21% (as of noon 3/20/08). If Stafford loan rates were still variable rate loans and rates were set today, the Stafford loan would have a variable rate of 2.51% – lower than student loan interest rates have ever been. For students now paying 6.8%, a rate of 2.51% would mean paying about $50 less per month on $20,000 in federal student loans. Had Congress also left student loan consolidation alone (not reducing subsidies to lenders, thereby reducing availability of consolidation loans to students) that same rate change would mean paying 56% less interest for the life of the loan.
This is a lesson for all of us – when government attempts to manage free markets, unintended consequences may result, and those consequences may be financially quite harmful in the long term.
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