SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Way down to the wire, but in the end, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a deal to keep the interest rate on government-backed student loans from doubling. Well, that will save the average borrower about $1,000 a year, but as NPR's Claudio Sanchez explains, the compromise is likely to cause students a lot more than that over the long term.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The agreement that lawmakers passed Friday will keep interest rates at 3.4 percent for another year. Anthony De La Rosa, 23, a University of Colorado graduate, says it's a big victory.
ANTHONY DE LA ROSA: And I think the reason that students should support this, first and foremost, is the fact that the 3.4 percent interest rate is being extended and something that students have pushed very, very hard over the last several months.
SANCHEZ: De La Rosa works for the U.S. Student Association, a lobbying group. He says 7.4 million students who rely on subsidized Stafford loans can now breathe easier. But some say it's a small victory given the other things Congress has done.
Joel Packer is with the Committee for Education Funding.
JOEL PACKER: In the last year, Congress has actually trimmed, you know, tens of billions of dollars from student aid.
SANCHEZ: Packer says lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, have actually made it more costly for students to borrow, and those costs dwarf whatever savings students can expect from lower interest rates. For example, graduate students will now have to pay the interest on their loans while they're still in school and all students will have to start paying back the money they borrowed immediately after graduation. The six-month grace period during which the government paid the interest is gone.
PACKER: And that's disappointing because Congress shouldn't pay for one education program by cutting another; in this case it's actually cutting the same one.
SANCHEZ: And that's not all, says Packers. Lawmakers have limited the number of semesters needy students can receive a Pell Grant and made it harder to qualify for the maximum award.
PACKER: So they've made a whole variety of changes. Overall, about $4.6 billion came out of students' pockets to go to pay off the federal deficit.
SANCHEZ: The total cost to students, according to some estimates, 18 to 20 billion dollars extra over the next 10 years. This all began a year ago, during the pitched political debate over the federal budget, the deficit and what federal government programs to cut. The student loan program was clearly not exempt, says Getachew Kassa, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association.
GETACHEW KASSA: This was something that was disheartening. When we started this campaign, I think, as a coalition of student advocates, something that we said was that no way in hell are you going take money from education.
SANCHEZ: But that's what lawmakers did, says Kassa, a University of Oregon graduate. So even with interest rates remaining low, Kassa says, the bigger story here is that students appear to have lost more than they gained.
KASSA: In the past year, we've had deals where students have basically been robbed. I think the real question to ask is, at what point is this going to stop? Because sooner or later, you take a little bit here, a little bit there, you have nothing else to take away from.
SANCHEZ: Kassa expects both Republicans and Democrats to take credit for keeping interest rates from doubling. But he says students will be back in nine months, yet again fighting to keep interest rates at 3.4 percent for another year and fighting to keep Congress from cutting student aid even more. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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