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Why Your Student Loan Interest Rate Is So High

Lawmakers and lenders look for ways to ease the burden
Szczepaniak has borrowed more than $200,000 to put his four sons through college. The loans have interest rates above 7 percent. Total monthly payments: $2,086
Szczepaniak has borrowed more than $200,000 to put his four sons through college. The loans have interest rates above 7 percent. Total monthly payments: $2,086Photograph by Daniel Shea for Bloomberg Businessweek

Joe Szczepaniak pays a 3.5 percent interest rate on the mortgage for his house in a Chicago suburb. His car loan is 1.79 percent. The federal education loans he took out to send his four sons to college? They’re all above 7 percent. “Student loans have been the big black holes of my budget,” he says. Szczepaniak, who calls himself “Mr. Quicken” because he carefully tracks his finances, questions why the $200,000-plus he owes on the student loans doesn’t “reflect reality” and today’s low rates.

The answer is that Congress, not the market, sets rates for federal loans—which account for 85 percent of the roughly $1 trillion in outstanding education debt—and refinancing to a lower rate is rarely an option. Now some lawmakers and private lenders are looking for ways to give education borrowers more repayment and refinancing options.