Looming increases to subsidized federal student loans could take a toll on thousands of Hawaii students, a problem that some education leaders worry might discourage many incoming Hawaii freshmen from completing school or making the most out of their college careers.

But Hawaii university officials say their hands are tied in the face of the likely hikes, which are expected to make college even more unaffordable for students across the country.

Experts say the so-called Stafford loans — which come with lower interest rates than most loans and are different from other federal aid such as Pell Grants — play a role in the nation’s economy because they support all types of students, including those from middle- and upper middle-class families.

As of July 1, new college students will be forced to start forking over 6.8 percent interest on the Stafford loans if a 2007 law that cut rates in half expires. The law almost lapsed last July, but Congress was able to advance a bill signed by President Barack Obama in June 2012 that delayed the increases another year.

“Student loans are supposed to be the next big liquidity crisis in the country,” said David Duffy, a University of Hawaii biology professor and faculty union president. “Increasing interest rates is going to aggravate this.”

U.S. Senators last Wednesday filibustered two proposals — one Democratic and one Republican — that aimed to prevent the hikes from happening, leaving Congress scrambling to find a solution everyone can agree on.

White House officials estimate that 7 million new student borrowers will have to pay about $1,000 more each in interest on next year’s loans if lawmakers fail to extend the law.

The rate increases may not add much to students’ bills in the larger scheme of things, but critics say they could take an especially heavy toll on students who are already struggling to afford college.

The total cost of attendance for a local UH Manoa undergraduate student, including dorm costs, books and personal expenses, is estimated to be about $22,000 for nine months.

At Hawaii Pacific University, it’s roughly $37,000 a year, according to Scott Stensrud, special assistant to the president for student retention.

(Hawaii university officials could not immediately provide information on what percentage of their students rely on the Stafford loans.)

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who’s backing both the filibustered Democratic proposal and other federal legislation that would lower the student rate to that paid by big banks, says that Hawaii students are drowning in debt, paying on average $23,500 in loans. He says more than 11 percent of those students are late on their loan repayments by at least 90 days.

That debt, according to University of Hawaii student government President Richard Mizusawa, could severely degrade the quality of students’ lives. He pointed to a friend who has to work two jobs and live off campus. Those students miss out on dorm life and the free time to engage in extracurriculars, he said.

“I want the student body to get the experience they’d get out of a mainland college, just having programs or some sort of unity to bond everyone together,” he said, pointing out that most UH students live off campus. “They’re not only here for an education.”

Still, some say the rate increases would be imposed on students largely unnoticed. That’s in part because the increases would only apply to new borrowers who will be taking out student loans for the first time.

Lui Hokoana, associate vice president for student affairs at UH, said students rarely think about the burdens associated with loans until it’s time for them to take them out. And with the subsidized Stafford loans, students don’t need to pay interest until they’ve completed college, he added.

That’s what makes the federally required pre-loan consultations, in which students get individual counseling about interest rates and various loan options, so important, he said.

But aside from complying with that requirement, partnering with national lobbying organizations and continuing ongoing efforts to expand financial aid options, local university officials say that can’t do much to ensure Hawaii students are prepared to take on the extra burden.

Strensrud also stressed that many of the congressional proposals are only stopgap solutions to what could be a constant threat.

The legislation Schatz is supporting — Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, which was introduced by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — would expire in July 2014. It would both prevent the rates from doubling next month and set the Stafford loan rates to the same 0.75 percent rate offered to banks through the Federal Reserve.

Both UH and HPU officials said the universities are expanding financial aid and scholarship options. For example, UH Manoa will be dedicating 20 percent of its tuition revenue to need- and merit-based scholarships next school year, up from the 16 percent it allocated this past school year.

And the UH — where more than half of students rely on financial aid — is expected to pay out $300 million in loans and grants next school year, up from the $256 million it paid out this year, according to Hokoana. Officials are also making a concerted effort to ensure all students who qualify for financial aid apply for it, he said.

But Mizusawa said UH could do a better job of making education more affordable for students, especially in light of ever-increasing tuition.

He suggested, for example, that the university invest in sustainable facilities to save money on electricity bills, money that he said should be allocated to financial aid.

Duffy in part blamed UH students’ woes on diminishing financial support from the state. The Legislature in 2011 cut $200 million from the university’s operating budget, leaving it at just above $900 million for the 2012 fiscal year. Lawmakers gave the university just under $800 million the year after that.

“Like underwater mortgages, some students will never be able to repay and so they won’t be buying houses or cars or otherwise keeping the economy going,” he said. “Some folks are going to get really rich off of this but a lot more are going to end up with deficient educations unfit for anything but rote work.”

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