Time is running out for Congress to act. And low-income college students will pay a high price if a deal can't be reached by Monday's deadline.
Interest rates on many new subsidized Stafford loans will skyrocket—from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent—on Monday, unless the Senate reaches a compromise.
(Read More: Senate Can't Save Student Loan Rates)
More than 7 million undergraduates receive these loans, for which the federal government pays the interest while the students are enrolled in school.
But the nation's student debt crisis affects so many more.
More than 38 million Americans have student loan debt, totaling nearly $1 trillion, a staggering number that has quadrupled in 10 years and keeps rising. Student loan debt now surpasses credit card and auto loan debt in this country—and it's only expected to get worse before it gets better.
Most in Congress agree the loan rates should to stay lower than 6.8 percent, at least for the subsidized Stafford loans used by the country's lowest-income students. But they're stuck on how to get there.
Republicans want to let the rates fluctuate with the markets every year and use the proceeds for deficit reduction. Democrats say that's unreasonable and want to cap how fast rates can rise.
"I see the debate about interest rates as a distraction from the real problem, which is the amount of debt," said Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.org and senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com.
"Each year the average cost of graduation goes up by about $1,000 or more. And having less expensive debt is going not going to make much of a difference if the total amount owed keeps on going up."
A study done this spring by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the share of 25-year-olds with student debt has increased from just 25 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2012. The average student loan balance among those 25-year-olds with student debt grew by 91 percent over that time, from $10,649 in 2003 to $20,326 in 2012.
The amount of debt has risen as tuition, room, board, fees and other college expenses have soared. The cost of attending college has risen about 4 percent in the past year alone—and has far outpaced the rate of inflation in recent years.