U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Friday many colleges commit acts of "negligence" compared to Elgin Community College when it comes to educating students about how to keep their loan debt at a minimum.
During a visit to ECC, Durbin said the college fits his vision for how financial aid offices should conduct business at higher learning institutions across the nation.
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Durbin introduced legislation last March called "The Know Before You Owe Act of 2012." It would require colleges to counsel students before they commit to student loans and inform them if they are eligible for government loans with better borrowing terms than many private lenders. The bill awaits further action by Congress.
ECC beat Durbin to the punch by introducing its own loan counseling program in fall of 2011. Student debt plummeted by 13 percent after the change. ECC officials placed an emphasis on loan counseling and financial education after determining 65 percent of its students faced financial problems severe enough to affect them in the classroom.
Durbin said he was moved to action when student loan debt topped $1 trillion last year.
"This is a debt that cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy," he said.
Federal legislation staples student loan debt, both public and private, to a person for life, he added.
"You're going to carry this debt to the grave," Durbin said. "They are now garnishing Social Security checks of grandparents who have signed on as guarantors."
Durbin was particularly critical of for-profit colleges and universities. He said those institutions receive a disproportionate share of federal student loan aid, but 47 percent of their students end up defaulting on their loans. On top of that, he said, those same students often end up graduating with "worthless diplomas."
In contrast, ECC student Bryan Lantz initially thought he wouldn't be able to afford college when he graduated from Larkin High School in Elgin. After going through financial aid counseling at ECC, he ended up with three scholarships and a Pell grant that provided so much money that he even had some left over once all his educational expenses were paid.
"It's an unbelievable amount of help they've given me," said Lantz, who is headed to Judson University after ECC. "All you have to do is apply yourself. If you work hard, you can get plenty of money for college."