North by Northwestern: Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin supports debt-free college

By Lauren Bally 

Jan. 31 2016

Senate Democrats revealed a new legislative package and campaign on Thursday encouraging Congress to focus on debt-free college and college affordability in 2016. The campaign is named #InTheRed after the name of the legislative package with the RED (Reducing Educational Debt) Act. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois stood alongside those in favor of making debt-free college a top priority this year.

“I hear all the time from young people in Illinois struggling to pay off their student loan debts – young people who aren’t able to find work that pays enough to cover their monthly student loan payments with anything left over for them to live on,” Durbin said in a press release. “They feel helpless and trapped. This campaign is about keeping more American students from winding up in the red, and we’re here to give those students a voice. We hope this Republican Congress will listen.”

The RED Act includes three parts of its legislation aiming to make two years of community college tuition-free, allow borrowers to refinance student loans at a lower rate and ensure Federal Pell Grants keep pace with rising costs.

Under the RED Act, 9 million community college students nationwide could save around $3,800 each year. These colleges would ensure that the skills taught would be compatible with today’s economy and the credits would be transferable to four-year universities in their state.

Eligible students borrowing loans could refinance their federal loans at the same rate as it was in the 2013-2014 year and refinance their private loans into the federal program. Those who participate voluntarily could access the benefits and protections of the federal student loan program.

By indexing Federal Pell Grants to inflation, 9.2 million students will be able to afford college with larger awards each year. This especially helps low-income families pursue higher education, as these are families that rely on Federal Pell Grants to attend school.

Communication sophomore Robert Cunningham, like many other students, has taken out loans to attend Northwestern and is set to graduate with debt. He finds the idea of an almost non-existent debt upon graduation to be very appealing.

“Sign me up,” Cunningham said. “Any way I can save myself and my family money in the long run would be much appreciated.”

The idea sprang from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which launched acampaign in January 2015 to push for Democratic support. The unveiling of the legislative package came soon after Obama’s final State of the Union address. Over two dozen Senate Democrats brought a local student as their guest to the speech to promote the #InTheRed campaign in social media by posting photos, videos and graphics in their “students in the red” buttons.

“We're thrilled Senate Democrats have launched their national ‘In The Red’ campaign to build grassroots support for the big, inspiring, popular idea of debt-free college,” PCCC Co-Founder Adam Green said in a press release. “Requiring students to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain a college degree puts education out of reach for millions – and it hurts people's ability to go into public service, start a small business or start a family after college.”

Senate Democrats also announced that they plan to visit college campuses this year to meet students with loan debt to further push Congress to pass the legislative package. Illinois State representative Will Guzzardi, a Democrat representing the Chicago area 39th District, praised the legislation and hopes to see it become a top priority this year.

“The cost of college is crushing too many families in Illinois and around the country," said Guzzardi said in a press release. "Debt-free college will be a priority for Democrats at the local, state and national levels in 2016. I'm so proud of Senator Durbin for taking the lead in Congress and I look forward to championing this issue in Springfield.”