“Can we change it? Sure, we can change it,” Harkin said. “It’s not the Ten Commandments, for God’s sake.”
Harkin did little to hide his unhappiness with the compromise but said there were few options to avoid a costly hike on students returning to campus this fall.
As part of the compromise, Democrats won a protection for students that capped rates at a maximum 8.25 percent for undergraduates. Graduate students would not pay rates higher than 9.5 percent, and parents’ rates would top out at 10.5 percent.
Using Congressional Budget Office estimates, rates would not reach those limits in the next 10 years.
Lawmakers engaged in near-constant work to undo a rate hike that took hold for subsidized Stafford loans on July 1. Rates for new subsidized Stafford loans doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
On Wednesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated outstanding student debt at $1.2 trillion — up 20 percent in just two years. Student loans are now the largest form of consumer debt behind mortgages.
The rapid growth in debt is raising alarm among experts, and there is growing evidence student debt is weighing down the economy — for instance, by delaying the ability of young graduates to buy homes.
The increase follows the jump in the cost of higher education.
The tuition sticker price at public four-year colleges is up 27 percent beyond overall inflation over the last five years, according to the latest figures from the College Board. This past year it rose nearly 5 percent to an average of $8,655 nationwide.
Only about one-third of full-time students pay that published price, and the average net price — what the average student does pay after financial aid — is just $2,910. But net prices have been rising, too, and tuition is just part of the cost of college. Including room and board, the average sticker price at public colleges is now $17,860, and students pay on average $12,110.