As Congress moves forward with a federal budget plan for 2010, rhetoric is ramping up on both sides of what is proving to be one of the most contentious budget debates so far: whether or not to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program. President Obama initially proposed this move in his budget outline, saying that a move to Direct Loans would result in a savings of $48 billion, money that could be put towards expanding the Federal Pell Grant program.
After the Congressional Budget Office revised the estimated savings to $94 billion over 10 years, many members of Congress and several higher education professional organizations have been offering up tentative support for the plan. Democrats on the joint budget committee have even begun paving the way for this portion of the budget to be eligible for reconciliation, a filibuster-proof process that will allow portions of the budget to pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate.
However, lenders and other groups have begun suggesting and campaigning for alternatives that would allow the bank-based student loan program to continue to exist while still cutting costs to some extent. Concerns have been raised that Direct Loans will not be as efficient or as kind to borrowers in the long run, though the credit crisis has made the program especially appealing as FFELP has required repeated government interventions to avoid grinding completely to a halt. With many schools voluntarily making the switch to direct lending based on the program's current stability, concerns have also been raised about a rapid expansion in Direct Loans overwhelming the program as it currently stands. Others worry that eliminating FFELP may speed lenders' exodus from private loans, ultimately leaving many students in a worse place financially than they find themselves in now.
What's emerging is a war of words between banks and the President. In a speech on Friday, Obama characterized lenders as, "gearing up for battle," to which he responded, "So am I. . . And for those who care about America's future, this is a battle we can't afford to lose." Considering the President's popularity and lenders' tarnished reputations from crisis after scandal after crisis over the last two years, we may see big changes happening soon in student loans.
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