Where Do Illinois Candidates Stand On Student Debt?

By Lee V. Gaines

Jeff Martin, a high school admission advisor for the Midwest Technical Institute, worries about the amount of college debt facing the students he talks to for a living. He should know because he was in their shoes once. Martin said he travels to high schools to talk to students about college and career choices.

And he said he worries about the financial futures of the students he meets because he said it’s “almost impossible” to pay for college out of pocket without the help of a lot of scholarships and financial aid.

Martin, 40, said he’s still struggling to pay off nearly $30,000 in student loans he took out when he was between the ages of 19 and 20 years old.

Due to a layoff, Martin said there was a time he defaulted on one of his student loans.

“At the same time I lost my job, two weeks later my wife lost hers. We have a mortgage, we have medical bills, and unfortunately we lost a child. That’s a lot to have to overcome and when you are at the point when you may lose the roof over your head, not much else matters,” he said.

Martin said he was able to defer his federal student loans, but the the private company who serviced another of his loans refused to work with him on a payment plan.

That hardship, he said, is why he spends a lot of time doing career counseling with high school students “so they can be more successful than me.”

But he worries that with even the best advice, cost may put a post-secondary education out of reach for many, or force them to also go into thousands of dollars of debt. That’s why Martin reached out to Illinois Newsroom to ask what the candidates running to represent his district in Congress, governor of Illinois and attorney general plan to do to make college more affordable, alleviate the burden of the student debt that already exists and go after the bad actors in the student loan industry.

Illinois Newsroom also put that question to Natalia Abrams, executive director of StudentDebtCrisis.Org — a non-profit that advocates for state and federal policies to lessen the impact of student debt nationally and lower the cost of higher education.

Abrams points out how large the scope of the problem actually is; there’s about 44 million student loan borrowers who owe a combined roughly $1.5 trillion.

“That’s just the people holding the debt,” Abrams said. “Those people have parents and children and brothers and sisters, and people that depend on them.”

She said the issue likely impacts between 150 million and 200 million Americans. “It affects our overall economy, and that’s why we should all care whether we are holding the debt or not, and that’s why our politicians should care.”

Abrams said the good news is elected officials can take action on both the state and federal level. On the federal level, she said there’s a lot of ways to tackle student loans — everything from canceling the debt, to passing refinancing legislation, to allowing bankruptcy protection for student loans, to implementing a no- or low-cost higher education system across the U.S.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates running for Congress in the 13th District (where Martin lives) what they plan to do about the issue if elected.

Responses from candidates have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Illinois’s 13th Congressional District Race

 

Rodney Davis (Incumbent Republican):

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

A: First of all, as the parent of somebody who’s in college right now who does not qualify, I understand what the cost of college is. One of the issues I tried to take on immediately when I got to Congress in 2015 was student loan debt and how to work in a bipartisan way to move good policies forward.

Courtesy Davis Campaign

I tried to do a couple things, (including) the Graduate Assistant Parity Act. (Editor’s note: This bill was introduced in March 2018 but not passed out of committee.) This was an idea from Illinois State University. Tuition waivers are an important part of tuition and an important part of paying for higher education where people will work to be able to earn tuition waivers. Some of those are still taxed — most are not —  and we fought to make sure that was not the case.

We need to make sure with every graduate assistantship, every tuition waiver, that students don’t pay taxes on it. All that is is extra tuition going to the federal government instead of the university.

We have to ensure the federal tax code doesn’t penalize families for taking advantage of things like graduate assistantships, tuition waivers, etc. to help families reduce the cost of college on the front end so they have less to borrow … But we also have to make sure we continue to spread the message that a college education has to be affordable, because affordability is what makes our institutions in the state of Illinois continue to be able to grow student (enrollment) on an annual basis.

I think the free market is already working. Look at places like the University of Illinois that have continued to freeze their tuition. That means they are seeing families and students choose colleges based on costs. I think that’s a great message to send … Competition for students is real … I think competition is good, even in higher education.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

A: The (other) bill we’ve been working on is the Employer Participation In Student Loan Assistance Act. (Editor’s note: This bill was introduced in February 2017 but has not passed out of committee.) This would treat student debt the same as tuition reimbursement is treated when it comes to the tax code. It would allow private employers the chance to help pay down student debt for their employees. It’s something that’s in demand, especially in a growing economy with historic low unemployment. These are two areas where I think we can have Washington actually help students and those who already have a bunch of debt.

Student debt in this country is over $1 trillion, and we need to make sure we have options out there to allow the private sector to use this as a financial incentive for people to go work at a particular company. At 3.9 percent unemployment, now is the time to engage the private sector to help pay down the student debt.

That’s something I think is a good voluntary private sector approach that is only going to help students who have graduated with an unbearable amount of debt.

Q: Would you support legislation that would lead to more refinancing options for student loans?

We’ve already been able to make sure that students have the opportunity to refinance, and students have the opportunity to get the lowest rate possible without Washington telling them what they have to pay. When you look at the future of student debt, we shouldn’t be talking about refinancing as much as making sure students and families don’t have to borrow as much on the front end because college is more affordable

That’s the problem I see in Washington: too much is focused on the back end. We can fix that with my bill, the Employer Participation In Student Loan Assistance Act, but we also have to focus on the front end.

Q: What is the role of the federal government in addressing the cost of college and the large amount of student debt that’s already out there.

A: The federal role would be to pass my two bills that I believe would allow many more families to have a much more affordable college education for their children.

Betsy Dirksen Londrigan (Democrat):

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

Courtesy Betsy Dirksen Londrigan Campaign

A: I think this is an area we don’t talk about enough and we have to acknowledge that the cost of college goes beyond tuition; it’s also books, it’s cost of living. For people in the middle, it’s an extraordinary lift and can put college out of reach for many people.

When it comes to four-year colleges, there are some things we can do. We can expand work study options. We can look at what community colleges are doing, such as Lewis and Clark Community College, for example. They have these great two-by-two programs where you do your first two years at a community college and it’s done in coordination with the four-year university. You are getting the classes that you need at a lower cost before you finish for your final two years at the four-year university. Those can really help cut the costs of a four-year education.

I also think we need to expand our public service options for student loan forgiveness. We have some options out there, but we have a lot of needs, especially here in the 13th District, around rural health and teaching. Expanding public service for student loan forgiveness is a great way for students to give back to their communities and pay off their student loans. For example: rural health. We have a huge shortage of nurses. (We could expand public service for student loan forgiveness) to make sure people, if they agree to serve for a couple years as a nurse or a doctor in a rural community, that not only do they earn an income but (also funding) goes back to repaying their student loans that they took out to get their education. Those are really good opportunities.

Another model we’ve talked about is expanding income share agreements. It’s a model where on the front end a student does not have all the costs associated with a college degree, but they’ve signed a contract that says for a certain number of years post-college, a certain percentage of their income from their job goes back to the college. Not only does that take down some of those initial hurdles, but it also aligns the interests of the college and the student. The college has a vested interest in making sure that student is successful in their courses, that they are job ready and it encourages job placement.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

Certainly we have to allow people to refinance their student loans at a lower interest rate. Just like people refinance their mortgages, we have to be able to do that for our students. I also think there are things we can do with employers to help people who are employed alleviate some of their student debt. We can incentivize employers to offer student loan repayment as a benefit. And we also need to raise the cap on employer-provided tuition assistance because it allows them to help their employees to seek further education. There are things we can do with the right people at the table to make this a priority.

Q: Would you support legislation that would lead to more refinancing options for student loans?

Absolutely.

Q: What is the role of the federal government in addressing the cost of college and the large amount of student debt that’s already out there.

A: What I think is missing in the conversation frequently is what this massive student loan debt is costing all of us. People carrying that amount of debt going into the workforce, they’re not able to buy homes, to buy cars. They’re not able to participate in strengthening local economies by going out to restaurants and all the things we need people to be able to do to keep our local economies strong and vibrant. I think, at the federal level, what we can do is help with the refinancing and making sure we make it more workable for people who are already carrying the debt. We can also give people more opportunities to alleviate some of that student loan debt by expanding public service for student loan forgiveness.

Illinois Governor’s Race:

 

On the state level, Abrams — from StudentDebtCrisis.Org — said state legislatures can enact their own policies to drive down student debt. They can enact state-based refinancing programs for both federal and private student loans. That means, she said, that the state government would purchase a loan and then offer lower interest rate repayment options to the borrower. She said the state could also provide an ombudsperson — that’s someone who would investigate complaints made about student loan servicers. Additionally, she said, states could also implement their own low- or no-cost college and university systems to prevent students from having to take out loans in the first place.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates for governor what they plan to do to tackle student loan debt and cost of higher education.

Bruce Rauner (Incumbent Republican):

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment on this story. But Rauner does have a political history to examine. In 2017, Rauner vetoed a bill that required loan providers to offer borrowers a range of repayment options and a transparent accounting of what each would actually cost them — known as the Illinois Student Loan Bill of Rights. State Republican lawmakers joined forces with their Democratic colleagues to override the governor’s veto, and the law takes effect this year.  

This year, however, Rauner signed legislation that creates a pilot program to better educate students about loans, repayment options and interest fees. The law dictates that state universities and colleges must send annual letters to students with loans explaining the balance of the loan and yearly repayment totals. He also signed a bill, which was supported by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, that prevents the state from suspending or terminating professional licenses held by borrowers who are behind on their student loan payments.

Additionally, Rauner signed legislation this year that provides $25 million for state universities to match and use to award merit-based scholarships. It’s a year-long pilot program dubbed “Aim High.”

JB Pritzker (Democrat):

The Pritzker campaign, while not agreeing to an interview, sent emailed responses to answer   the following questions.

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

A: Higher education has become unaffordable for too many Illinois students and families. Bruce Rauner’s two-year budget crisis only exacerbated the difficulties families faced by slashing funding for our schools, derailing financial aid, and destabilizing support for our higher education system … Over 100,000 students were cut off from MAP grants, and enrollment in state universities plummeted by 72,000 students.

That’s why I was proud to release a comprehensive higher education plan that will increase funding for MAP grants, restore funding for our colleges and universities, establish a state-administered student loan refinancing plan, and set Illinois on a path toward providing free college education. When I’m governor, I will increase college affordability to keep our students in state and move Illinois’ system of higher education forward from Bruce Rauner’s crisis and instability. Together, I know we can give our state’s brightest minds the tools they need to thrive.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

Too many across our state have been burdened by crippling amounts of student debt. That’s why I have proposed a state-administered student loan refinancing program to help students and families reduce their student loan payments by hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. By working hand-in-hand with the higher education community, I’m confident we can provide relief to students saddled with debt.

Sam McCann (Conservative):

 

The McCann campaign did not respond to our requests for comment.

Kash Jackson (Libertarian):

The Jackson campaign sent these responses to some of our questions via email.

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

Courtesy Kash Jackson Campaign

Rising tuition costs at public universities is a concern to me. I intend to deal with this issue by first addressing why tuition at public universities is going up and what can be done; second, I will offer solutions to help middle-class families afford tuition at state universities.  

One of the main factors contributing to rising tuition is the growth of administrative costs. In order to curb the rising costs to attend a public university, I will cut the administrative bloat that currently exists.  Most tax dollars go towards administrative salaries and pensions rather than to academic functions. One way to cut administrative costs is to look at ways to make our state university system more efficient. Three other states–Wisconsin, California, and New York–have streamlined their state university system.  We can learn from what these states have done and implement their strategies. I would also look to create one unified board for all 12 state universities rather than having nine separate boards. My goal is to create a more unified university system in order to cut administrative costs.

I would like to acknowledge that lawmakers in Springfield have addressed the problem of keeping tuition affordable, like introducing HB 1316, which would offer grants to students attending public universities. Yet this type of legislation forces taxpayers to make up the difference and does not offer fiscally responsible solutions, i.e. make universities accountable for using taxpayer funds for academic purposes rather than on superfluous administrative costs.

More education is needed for families looking to pay for college. Studies have shown that most Americans are not aware of the 529 savings plans that offer tax advantages for families planning for college. Private scholarships exist as well. To increase the awareness of resources available to families, more outreach and education is needed, even for families with young children so that they can start saving sooner.

My office will partner up with organizations such as the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and the Illinois Board of Higher Education to provide more outreach and workshops at places like schools and public libraries. There are methods in place to help families save and pay for college — the 529 savings account and scholarships — and I intend to increase education on how to use these resources.

Finally, I will advocate for policies that increase transparency in higher educational institutions. Tuition costs and fees to all prospective students need to be provided upfront on promotional materials and easy to understand. Additionally, academic departments need to provide concrete examples of the types of careers and expected salaries of chosen fields of study so that students have a clear understanding of job and salary expectations upon graduation so that they can make an informed decision before taking on debt.   

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

According to a report issued in 2017 from the Institute for College Access and Success, 61 percent of college graduates in Illinois are saddled with an average debt of $29,271. This is an overwhelming responsibility of debt that is looming over a new graduate whose average age is around 23 to 24. Yet the reality is that so many seeking a college education must take on this debt in order to work towards a bachelor’s degree. I take a compassionate position with those burdened with student debt. I do not believe that the state should take punitive measures towards those who find it difficult to pay off their debt.  For example, the Career Preservation and Student Loan Repayment Act that was signed by Gov. Rauner f this year is the type of legislation that I support.  

In an effort to aid those with student debt, I will work towards increasing debt forgiveness programs currently offered through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. More debt assistance programs could be offered to those who choose to go into high-demand fields in order to attract students to pursue careers in those sectors.  

Another solution is to offer state tax-incentives to those companies who aid students in paying for their tuition so that students do no need to take on as much debt. The goal with these incentives is to encourage more companies to offer tuition assistance programs to their employees.        

Students should be encouraged to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. Refinancing options are currently advertised by banks and credit unions with attractive rates.  I support these types of free-market solutions. As a Libertarian, I do not support the expansion of state government in this area. Federal student loans are a major contributor to the rising cost of tuition.

Illinois Attorney General’s Race:

Abrams from StudentDebtCrisis.Org said a state’s attorney general can have a big impact on student debt holders. For example, she cites outgoing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s recent action against student debt servicer Navient. Madigan’s office sued Navient (and its predecessor Sallie Mae) for allegedly peddling high-risk subprime loans to borrowers and failing to fulfill its loan servicing duties.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates whether they agreed with Madigan’s actions against Navient, and if they would continue to go after loan companies for harming student loan borrowers.

Kwame Raoul (Democrat):

 

Courtesy Kwame Raoul Campaign

The Raoul campaign sent this statement via email in response to our question:

Sen. Raoul agrees with Attorney General Madigan’s actions in this area and will continue to crack down on lenders, servicers and institutions that defraud students. In addition, he is troubled by Secretary Betsy DeVos’ efforts to rollback protections and limit loan forgiveness programs for borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools that misrepresented the value of their degrees. As the father of two children in college, this issue is personal to Raoul, and as attorney general, he will work to protect student borrowers through lawsuits, advocacy and consumer education.

 

Erika Harold (Republican):

Courtesy Erika Harold Campaign

The Harold campaign sent this statement via email in response to our question:

Erika supports the legal action taken by Attorney General Madigan against student loan providers and would continue to advocate for increased transparency and disclosure from providers. Our state must take all appropriate action to ensure that students are making responsible and fully-informed decisions on a critical and important issue like a college education.