WASHINGTON -- College students could save an average of $700 on loan repayments under legislation President Clinton signed Wednesday to lock in interest rates at their lowest levels in 17 years.
"Today with this lowering of the interest rates ... we can really say that every high school graduate in America, regardless of income, can afford to go to college," the president said.
He enacted the rate cut -- part of a broader education bill that also pushes Pell Grants to their highest level ever -- in a White House ceremony steeped in self-congratulation by members of the Republican-led Congress who are eager as Election Day nears to boast of some achievement for the year.
Three times, House and Senate committee chairmen invited their members to stand and be applauded in the East Room.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resource Committee, promised by week's end to "begin to complete action," on a reading bill, charter schools' legislation, a Head Start reauthorization and vocational education reform.
"From Head Start to higher education, the final product of our collective efforts is a record of accomplishment from which we all take great satisfaction," said Jeffords, R-Vt.
The bill signing coincided with a College Board report finding that college tuition and fees were up an average of 4 percent this year -- a faster growth than this year's 2 percent overall inflation.
The new law is expected to save borrowers an estimated $11 billion over five years by locking in for that period a new interest-rate formula, based on Treasury bill rates and added points, for student loans. The rate would be 7.46 percent -- down from more than 8 percent last year -- for graduates starting to repay their loans under the Direct Loan and Government-Guaranteed Loan, or FFEL, programs.
Students who want to refinance existing loan payments must apply before Jan. 31.
A typical student borrower at a four-year college, graduating with $13,000 in debt, would save about $700 over a standard 10-year repayment period, the White House said.
The legislation also raises the maximum authorized amount for Pell Grants from the present $3,000 to $4,500 a year in 1999-2000, and -- in steps -- to $5,800 in 2003-2004. But Congress has yet to provide the money and the Clinton administration requested a spending level for this fiscal year that would raise the maximum grant by only $100.
The new law also authorizes steps to improve teacher preparation, monitor college costs, report campus crimes, monitor hate crimes and discourage drug and alcohol abuse.
Clinton, who has sharply criticized a "do-nothing" Congress resistant to the bulk of his education agenda, soft-pedaled that theme Wednesday as he emphasized that bipartisan cooperation got the higher education bill passed.
"This is the way America should work. This is the way Congress should work," he said. "Let me just say in the closing days of this congressional session, I hope that there will be similar bipartisan actions on the agenda for public school excellence that I offered eight months ago."
He prodded lawmakers to approve his proposals for national testing and standards, for spending more to modernize aging school buildings, and for hiring 100,000 more public school teachers to reduce class sizes.
But Rep. Bill Goodling, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, countered that his Republican majority has addressed such problems in its own way, notably the teacher-training and recruitment funds provided under Wednesday's new law.
"If you don't have a quality teacher in the classroom, it doesn't matter if the class size is two or 32," said Goodling, R-Pa.