Sen. Mike Frerichs hosts college affordability hearing at the Illini Union

Student senator Rachel Heller’s grandfather had an opportunity that she was not afforded — he was able to pay his way through college by working full time. But with the cost of college today, she said, that is simply not a viable option for students.

State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-52, hosted a college affordability hearing in the Illini Union to discuss the student debt crisis Wednesday.

At the hearing, a panel consisting of state representatives Chad Hays, R-Danville, and Naomi Jakobsson, D-103, as well as state senators Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Frerichs, heard from students and administrators regarding student debt.

Katharine Gricevich, director of government relations at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, began by explaining grants offered to students.

Gricevich said Illinois ranks fifth in the nation for the highest average student fees at the university level — the national average tuition and fees comes to $8,244 while Illinois’ average is just under $12,000.

Among the federal financial aid offered to students are Pell Grants and the Monetary Award Program. These forms of aid offered to students are need-based and are not repaid by the student. According to ISAC, Illinois awarded students $411.6 million in 2012 through MAP grants, and Gricevich said 40 percent of these funds went to public universities. Nearly $24 million was awarded to students attending for-profit colleges — state money that is padding the wallets of investors, Rose said.

“To spend that kind of money (on for-profit schools) … is unconscionable,” he said.

More Illinois students are looking to community college as an alternative to attending a university for their first two years, said Tom Ryder, lobbyist for the Illinois Community College Board.

Ryder said 65 percent of students in Illinois attend community college. These students come from a diverse background including first-generation traditional students, as well as non-traditional students, such as single mothers and people in the workforce looking to improve their credentials, he said.

He emphasized that while the majority of Illinois students attend community college, community colleges only receive 16 percent of the state’s available funds for financial aid. Ryder urged the panel to consider opening up more of its budget to assist students in community college.

“You are not going to be able to have two out of three students going to (community college) to pursue higher education but then provide (little) state funding,” Hays said in agreement.

Illinois Student Senator Tony Fiorentino, graduate student in Law, brought to the panel’s attention that student loans were becoming a source of profit for lenders. The federal government is making a profit of $184 billion from federal student loans, he said, even after accounting for loans that students defaulted on.

“I think the biggest contributor is the fact that every consumer right and bankruptcy protection has been taken away from student borrowers, and only student borrowers,” Fiorentino said. “Student loan debt is the only kind that can be collected from the student for the rest of his life, no matter what kind of circumstances the student finds himself in. This allows for Svarious abuses and predatory practices.”

Scott Humphrey, Graduate Employees Organization member, spoke briefly about the socioeconomic impact of the increasing cost of education.

Because financial aid awarded to students is so little compared to the cost of attending a university, many would-be students simply do not have the option to pursue an education at a four-year university, he said.

In front of the panel, Heller, a junior in LAS, shared her concerns about the rising costs of attending a university in Illinois.

“Students can no longer afford school, even when working full-time,” Heller said.

She also mentioned that estimated parental contributions — the amount the government expects parents to pay based on their income — is unrealistic. She said her mother cannot afford to pay what the state is asking.

“Bad politics got us into this mess, so only good politics is going to get us out, and we certainly cannot leave this in the hands of Congress; we’ve seen that they’re not going to act unless students force their hand,” Fiorentino said. “It’s not until we are really willing to get together and cooperate at a grass roots level that we’re going to see real change.”

Eli can be reached at [email protected]