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Stafford Loan Interest Rate Increase: What's At Stake For African-American Students?

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With relatives on the alumni roster and a close proximity to his home in West Des Moines, Jordan Garrison-Nickerson had no doubt he'd attend college at the University of Iowa. How to pay for it, however, would prove to be a tougher decision and the subject of many conversations he'd have during his senior year of high school with his single, and now unemployed, mom.

"That was a time when me and my mom sat down and and said, 'Okay, the University of Iowa is our goal. We need to get you there and we need to do what we need to do financially to make that happen,'" Nickerson recalls. "After applying ... there were a lot of meetings, keeping my eyes and ears open, reading emails, networking -- to basically be in people's minds like, 'Hey, that's Jordan Nickerson, I know he was really shooting for that scholarship, that loan. I want to keep him in my mind,'" he said.

Today, Nickerson, a sophomore accounting and communications major at the University of Iowa, hopes to stay on President Barack Obama's mind when the president participates in a roundtable at the school to discuss the impending Stafford loan interest rate hike set to take place on July 1, 2012.

The federally backed loan program, with a current interest rate of 3.4 percent, helps make college more affordable for low- and middle-income undergraduates. But if the law cutting the interest rates for the program expires, the rates will double on July 1 to 6.8 percent -- the current rate for unsubsidized loans -- and raise the costs by an average of $1,000 for each of the nearly 7 million undergraduates who receive it.

Of those who benefit from subsidized Stafford loans, the 1.5 million African Americans represent the single largest group of borrowers by ethnicity, according to the White House. These subsidized loans have particular appeal because the federal government pays the interest on them while students are in college; students who take out unsubsidized federal Stafford loans are responsible for the interest as soon as they start borrowing.

Obama embarked on Tuesday on a tour of college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa to discuss the rate increase and to urge Congress to keep the rate at 3.4 percent. Opponents of the law say that keeping the rate as it is will cost taxpayers an additional $6 billion each year.

"I didn't just read about this," Obama told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to the Washington Post. "Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes," he said, explaining how he and wife Michelle had a "mountain of debt," with payments that initially cost more than what they were paying on their mortgage. The debt was paid off only about eight years ago, the Post reports.

With tuition rates having doubled since 2000 -- a 10 percent increase each year -- Americans now owe more tuition debt than credit card debt, according to the White House. And while the average debt for a bachelor's degree is $24,000, 16 percent of black graduates owe more than $40,000 in loans, according to a recent report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Studies have shown that blacks disproportionately borrow the most because they are more likely to attend private nonprofit or for-profit colleges, as opposed to public four-year colleges.

Compounding the student debt these students face upon graduation is the exceptionally high rate of unemployment, which has forced many to turn to full-time work outside of his or her field of study.

Nickerson, who plans to pursue a law degree when he completes his undergraduate degree, scored a spot at today's talk by sharing his personal struggle with student loan debt. It's a story he plans to share with President Obama in order to better understand how legislation like this will ultimately affect him.

"I'm sure a lot of kids say it, but I want to graduate from the University of Iowa with a degree where I can get a well-paying job," Nickerson says. "I've even joked around with my mom saying, 'I want to buy you a house. I want to take care of you when you get older.' That is my goal."

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