The Daily Illini

ISS, lawmakers push for state legislation in student debt crisis

By Megan Jones

While the debt clock continues ticking away without pause, Americans owe more than $1 trillion in student loans, which is more than the country owes in credit card debt. In 2011, college seniors in Illinois graduated with an average of $26,000 of debt per graduate, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. 

Welcome to the age where 50- and 60-year-olds are still repaying their student debt loans, said Tony Fiorentino, a graduate student in the College of Law who has been working with the Illinois Student Senate for the past year to address student debt issues.  

“I think the biggest problem facing the student loan system is that the students are treated unequally under the law, particularly in respect to our bankruptcy laws,” Fiorentino said. “Students cannot find debt relief by going to court, no matter how much debt they take on.” 

He added that the cost of tuition has risen at two to three times the rate of inflation for several decades now, leading to catastrophic consequences. 

“Students are delaying car purchases, retirement contributions, they are not able to get married or have children as they normally would because they have such large student debt repayments,” Fiorentino said.

The College Board estimates that students will pay 50 percent more toward tuition than a decade ago, after inflation.

“There’s no way that people can afford that kind of tuition by simply flipping burgers over the summer or getting help from their parents,” Fiorentino said. “Most people who are (in) middle or low-income families don’t have the kind of money sitting around in a savings account, so they have to borrow, which is something few people had to do 30 to 40 years ago.” 

Because there are no consumer or bankruptcy protections on student loans, students are finding themselves taking on huge loans in a lending system that has become predatory, Fiorentino said.

Illinois Student Senate hosts debt awareness week

The Illinois Student Senate devoted last week to student debt awareness in an effort to bring attention to the lack of consumer protections for student loans, which can weigh heavily on students and their families.

“The purpose is that many students do not understand the relationship between their lack of consumer rights and the inflated price of college,” Fiorentino said. “Now with $50,000 in credit card debt (from) just buying stupid things, I could get debt relief, but not if I took on the same load of debt trying to get an education.”

Illinois Student Senate hosted a panel Tuesday, Nov. 12, which featured several speakers including Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-103, Sen. Mike Frerichs and Alan Collinge, founder of studentloanjustice.org and the nation’s leading activist for legal equality for student borrowers. 

“Congress has done nothing for us. I can tell you this problem is not going to be solved without the students,” Collinge said. “We have gotten no federal legislation passed.”  

Collinge referenced a story of a borrower who contacted him saying they took out a $5,000 loan, but due to late fees, penalty fees and capitalized interest, their loan had grown to $100,000.

The student senate also hosted a screening of the documentary “Default” on Thursday, which was followed by a town hall discussion with students. Lastly, a rally was held Friday on the Quad, which included Champaign City Council members, local politicians, members from Student Loan Justice and professors. 

“It felt exhilarating,” Fiorentino said. “This is something that so many students suffer silently through and treat it as if it’s their own personal albatross or their own personal struggle, and it’s not.” 

Participants marched to the Alma Mater in a symbolic effort to protest against how “the guardian of the past has forsaken the American dream,” said Mitch Dickey, ISS member and sophomore in LAS.

“Your arms are no longer open to all those happy children of the future,” Dickey said. “The true travesty is with our legislators and administrators who have lost focus of making education affordable for all.”

Fiorentino stressed that the idea is not to study hard to make lots of money to pay off loans, because that will not fix the system, only leaving generations to come with the same problem. 

“The idea is to work together and change the law so today’s students have the same opportunities that yesterday’s students had,” Fiorentino said

The aftermath of student loans

Meet Victoria Weiley, a 55-year-old woman who has paid more than $35,000 in interest without making a dent in paying off her student loan debt. 

Weiley’s father died when she was 12 years old; her mother never graduated high school, which left her with no one to guide her through the higher education system. She graduated from college with honors in 1988, after which she worked two full-time jobs to pay back her loans. After not making a dent in her payments, she sought consumer credit counseling who told her “she seems to be doing everything right.”

She decided to go back in 1998 to earn her master’s degree in hopes of earning more money. In her last semester of school, she opened her student loan statement and was appalled — she was in $72,000 of debt.

“I couldn’t eat or sleep for a couple of days, and I was actually suicidal,” Weiley said. “I suffer from insomnia, and I believe this has contributed to my diagnosis of breast cancer, which I overcame. I also am on antidepressants. However, I refuse to become a victim from this.”

Today, her debt stands at $118,000, and she makes a monthly payment of $550, which only goes toward interest. 

Collinge said this is why bankruptcy protection rights need to be enacted, giving people like Weiley some leverage to create better payment programs. 

“Every time you mention bankruptcy, people freak out,” Collinge said. “It’s not so everyone can run out and file for bankruptcy. The importance of this protection is to have a good faith relationship with the lender and to prevent abuse to the consumer.”

He hopes that with these rights in place, the lender will hold the same risk as the consumer. With this, lenders will want to see consumers succeed and successfully pay off their loans instead of simply charging more interest. 

Natalie Uhl, graduate student at the University, has been in college for 14 years — a task which would be “impossible” to take on without student loans. 

She is currently striving to buy a home in the Champaign community, and after working multiple jobs, where all her income goes towards student loans, she cannot afford a down payment for a house. Her car is as old as her college career, and she can no longer take it on the interstate. 

“All I want is a career as a teacher, all I want is a roof over my head, all I want is a car that’s safe,” Uhl said. “The interest is accumulating everyday, and it’s horrifying to watch. I feel like people that work hard and get an education to do a public good, like teach others, should be allowed this common decency.”

Legislation passes, calls on senators 

Jakobsson submitted a resolution, HR 0620, to the Illinois House of Representatives, which calls on Congress to restore bankruptcy protections and consumer rights to students that take on loans. The resolution is currently “stuck in committee,” while a similar resolution, written by Fiorentino, was passed in the Illinois Senate by Sen. Frerichs.

“We already have one body, one chamber of our state legislature, that has definitely answered this question, and that’s enough for us to get started and rallying around this,” Fiorentino said. 

The rally ended with a commitment for next semester: to get state senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk to a town hall meeting to talk about the “horrible failures” of the federal student loan program and how they are leading a generation of students into a “debt trap spiral,” Fiorentino said. 

He also said students today should receive the same educational treatment that Durbin received when he went to college and graduated in 1966. 

“If that’s the deal Dick Durbin got, he should want today’s students to get the same opportunity. He should want that kind of generational equality,” Fiorentino said. “So, it’s not just equality under the law we want, it’s generational equality.”

Megan can be reached at [email protected] and @meganash_jones.

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