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Obama's student loan debt-relief plan: Too good to be true?

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“I can’t answer that question,” said witness James Runcie, the Education Department’s federal student aid chief operating officer. “Whatever we’re told to do in terms of implementation and execution, we’ll optimize and do what’s in the best interest of borrowers and students.”

Part of the answer appears to be a move made by the Democrat-controlled Congress in March 2010. It ended taxpayer subsidies to private banks for student loans, meaning that the Education Department alone was responsible for handing out government money for such loans. That means the $60 billion set to go to private banks for student loans during the next 10 years is now tabbed for the Education Department.

Congress directed the Education Department to use that savings to expand Pell grants for low-and moderate income students to attend college. But many House Republicans who still oppose the move they say it has made the Department of Education one of the largest banks in the nation, largely unaccountable to Congress.

“This is another example of the Obama administration making changes to federal education policy behind closed doors,” said GOP committee spokeswoman Alexandra Sollberger in an e-mail. “We are disappointed that the Department of Education chose not to engage committee members prior to announcing this plan to the press.”

Republican critics also note that the Education Department charges 6.8 percent for loans that cost much less, “creating a pretty big slush fund for the government,” said Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, at Tuesday’s hearing.

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