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North country colleges hope for return to lower student loan rates

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POTSDAM — Financial aid officials at north country colleges are hoping for a turnaround from Congress as they prepare for the consequences of doubling student loan interest rates.

The rate for federal subsidized Stafford loans jumped from 3.4 to 6.8 percent Monday as Congress failed to stop the rise.

These loans, which are awarded to students with financial need and do not accrue interest while a student is in school, make up about a quarter of all student loans nationwide.

The financial aid offices of area colleges have been expecting the increase since last summer, but are still hoping that rates will be lowered once again when Congress returns.

At SUNY Potsdam, students were told to expect a 6.8 percent interest rate.

“If legislation passes, reducing the rate from 6.8 percent, it will be good news for our students, but they will have planned for and expected the higher rate when signing for the loans,” said Susan C. Merchant, SUNY Potsdam’s director of financial aid.

SUNY Potsdam disbursed more than 5,100 subsidized Stafford loans in the 2012-13 school year.

SUNY Canton’s financial aid director, Kerrie L. Cooper, said she remains optimistic.

“I’m trying to keep positive,” she said. “The longer it goes, the more worried I’ll be.”

More than 70 percent of SUNY Canton students receive subsidized Stafford loans.

If students are saddled with higher interest, they won’t have to worry about it while they are attending school, but once they graduate they will have more to pay off. The increase does not affect loans already disbursed, so those who have graduated have no need to worry.

“At a time when some graduates are having a difficult time finding employment, this is kind of a piling on of their challenges,” said Jeffrey B. Rickey, vice president of admissions and financial aid for St. Lawrence University. “Congress’s infighting and lack of cooperation has resulted in this extra burden to students.”

For now, college officials are educating students while playing the waiting game, uncertain what Congress will do. It’s a game they are used to, said Clarkson University’s financial aid director, Pamela A.V. Nichols.

“Uncertainty in laws and regulations governing federal financial aid programs is not new nor uncommon. Over the past several years, Congress has made many last-minute changes that impact the financial aid community and students,” she said in an email.

All four financial aid directors agreed that Congress should roll the rate back.

“At this point, we’re still hoping that they come to an agreement very soon,” Ms. Cooper said. “Because they don’t want students to be paying higher interest rates.”

She said parents and students should urge Congress to take action.

“I would tell them to write to their Congress people. We have found it very effective in the past to get the word out,” she said.

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