CHICAGO -- If Congress fails to renew a 2007 law that halved the interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans, Illinois students will be staring down $380 million per year in debt.

The law that expires this July would double interest rates on college loans from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. Data released by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Thursday shows that that increase could be particularly damaging for college students in Illinois.

The timing couldn't be worse: Illinois' unemployment is currently just over 9 percent, higher than the 8.2 percent national average. Illinois PIRG predicts that 67 percent of jobs in the state will require a college degree by 2020, though currently only 43 percent of the population has completed secondary education.

For current Illinois students who face the possibility of a doubled interest rate when they graduate, having to choose between substantial loan debt or abandoning post-secondary education is already posing dilemmas.

"I hope to join the Peace Corps or Teach For America right after I graduate, but I have to make plans based on all of this debt I have, because if a program won't defer the interest payments on my debt, then I probably can't do that program," said Kathryn Pantell, a freshman math and psychology student at Loyola University Chicago who hopes to become a teacher.

Pantell said she received a full tuition scholarship to Loyola, but still had to take on some Stafford loans to cover additional costs of food, housing and school supplies. She holds two part-time work-study jobs and lives at home so she can work during the summers, and still she worries that won't be enough to ensure her financial stability after graduation.

Her concerns are likely familiar to the 62 percent of Illinois college graduates, who carry an average loan debt of $23,885, according to Illinois PIRG.

Even at Northeastern Illinois University, which according to U.S. News and World Report had the lowest national percentage of students who graduated with loan debt in 2010, the 16 percent of indebted graduates owe on average about $12,000, said Maureen Amos, a financial aid officer at the university.

Amos said even smaller debt burdens can be a major setback for young people who are trying to break into a shaky job market.

"Student debt can change the shape of a young person's life," Amos said. "When students graduate with high levels of student debt, it can force them to postpone major life events like marriage, parenthood and home ownership. It's important to minimize that debt, including keeping interest rates low, in order to reduce the impact it has on the lives of our graduates.”

U.S. Department of Education data suggests that 365,416 Illinois student borrowers would be affected by a one-year extension of the lower interest rate, saving an average of $1,061 per student, or $387,706,376 statewide.

Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin cosponsored legislation that would extend the rate. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk has yet to take a position on the issue.

What Is Congress Doing About Student Debt?
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  • Ryan Budget Whacks Pell Grants, Makes Federal Student Loans More Expensive

    Pell grants are the financial aid packages given to low-income college students which they do not have to pay back. Students who receive them are not required to attend a public college or even stay in their homestate, so that freedom has made it a fairly popular program. However, Rep. Paul Ryan's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/pell-grants-paul-ryan-budget_n_1383178.html" target="_hplink">proposed federal budget would cut $200 million</a> from the program, and potentially eliminate help for more than 1 million students. Currently the maximum Pell grant award is $5,645, which only covers about a third of the cost of attending college. Ryan's budget would cut Pell grant eligibility for students who attend classes on less than halftime. His budget would also make it so college students with federal student loans would have to start paying interest on their loans while still in school.

  • Student Loans And Bankruptcy

    Thanks to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2005, virtually no student loans can be discharged in bankruptcy. So in practical terms, if you have $200,000 in debt for credit cards, car payments, or mortgage payments from a private bank, they can all be wiped away in bankruptcy. However, student loans from the same private lender cannot. The argument is that you can take away someone's car when they file bankruptcy, but you cannot take away their education. The Senate <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/2012/03/28/looming-student-debt-crisis-hits-the-senate" target="_hplink">heard testimony</a> on March 20 about whether or not this should be changed. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-20/durbin-urges-private-student-loans-be-discharged-in-bankruptcy.html" target="_hplink">leading the charge for bankruptcy reform</a> that would allow students to get rid of their student loan debt when and if they file bankruptcy.

  • Student Loan Forgiveness Act

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/10/student-loan-forgiveness-act-2012-hansen-clarke_n_1415910.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost Detroit reported</a> on the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, put forward by Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.): <blockquote>H.R. 4170 would forgive student loan debt for those who have paid 10 percent of their discretionary income toward their loans for 10 years and would cap interest on federal student loans at the current rate of 3.4 percent. Individuals who go into teaching, public service or practice medicine in underserved areas would have their debt forgiven after only five years. "Everyone tells us to go to school and work hard and we'll be rewarded for our dedication," Clarke said. "But the promise of a dream can turn into a nightmare for so many people."</blockquote>

  • Petition For Student Loan Forgiveness Act

    An <a href="http://signon.org/sign/support-the-student-loan" target="_hplink">online petition</a> hosted by MoveOn.org has nearly reached its goal of attaining 875,000 signatures in support of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act. The Forgiveness Act would allow students who make payments equal to 10% of their discretionary income for 10 years to have their remaining federal student loan debt forgiven. According to talking points included in the petition, "If you have already been making payments on your student loans, your repayment period would likely be shorter than 10 years. The amount you have already paid on your student loans over the past decade would be credited toward meeting the requirement for forgiveness."

  • Student Loan Interest Rates: They May Double

    A 2007 law that kept federally subsidized Stafford loan interest rates low will expire this summer, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/student-loan-interest-rate_n_1371236.html" target="_hplink">meaning the rates would double</a> from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. Students have already gone to Capitol Hill to protest and most Democrats are in favor of keeping the interest rates low. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) proposed a bill that would get rid of the expiration date on the discounted student loan rate. However, Republicans argue it would cost the federal government $5.7 billion, which they say is way too much. If Congress does not act, the interest rates for federal student loans would increase on June 30, 2012.

  • No Definition Of Credit Hours

    Republicans passed a bill out of committee that would repeal minimum standards for a credit hour and removes the need for a state to authorize higher education institutions in their state. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) <a href="http://edworkforce.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=281565" target="_hplink">contends this would allow</a> greater flexibility for schools, Democrats counter that it opens the door for fraud. The federal definition of a <a href="http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/blog/overturning-accountability-and-integrity-measures-higher-education-programs-facts-hr-2117" target="_hplink">credit hour is the basic unit</a> underlying the distribution of federal student aid. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) <a href="http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/03/15/essay-argues-against-bill-overturn-us-rules-higher-ed-oversight#ixzz1qXWVjWPA" target="_hplink">wrote on Inside Higher Ed</a> that the bill represents a threat to the government's ability to police institutional fraud in the higher education industry. In regards to eliminating the requirement for state authorization for colleges, Bishop said "the bill would make it impossible for states to guarantee the quality of programs operating inside their borders."

  • Pell Grants Are Now Semester Limited

    A rule from the Obama administration <a href="http://www.wtva.com/news/local/story/Longtime-students-may-be-shocked-at-new-law/nDgQP5Yu9ES5KSkIJJYXiw.cspx" target="_hplink">will limit the use</a> of Pell grants to 12 full-time semesters, or approximately six years of studying. The new rule goes into effect July 1, and the Department of Education will contact students in April who have used up their allotted time in school.

  • Investigate The Federal Loan Programs

    Congressional Republicans <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-03-28/republicans-call-for-congressional-probe-of-student-loan-program" target="_hplink">recently sent a letter</a> to the Government Accountability Office urging them to investigate the federal student loan program and whether they are "appropriately managing student debt." The federal government has turned to private debt collectors to collect money owed for student loans, while $67 billion of student loans are now in default, according to Businessweek. Those contractors out there trying to get students and graduates to pay up are paid on commission. The GOP <a href="http://edworkforce.house.gov/UploadedFiles/03-27-12_-_GAO_Letter_on_FFEL.pdf" target="_hplink">letter said</a> they were concerned borrowers who have defaulted are not getting adequate assistance to get back on track repaying their loans. The letter was signed by Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, chair of the House education committee; Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking member of the Senate education committee; Reps. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and Judy Biggert of Illinois; and Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma

  • The CFPB Will See You Now

    The newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/05/student-loan-complaints-cfpb_n_1322037.html" target="_hplink">field complaints</a> about billing, confusing advertising and collection by private student lenders, and relay complaints about federal loans. "Getting a higher education can mean taking on significant debt - a big decision with a lot of consequences," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. It's safe to say the CFPB is pretty concerned about student debt among American college students. Rohit Chopra, the student loan ombudsman for the CFPB, had a grim forecast recently in a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/student-loan-interest-rate_n_1372506.html" target="_hplink">blog post about student debt</a>: "Students continue to borrow private student loans, which lack the income-based repayment and deferment options of federal student loans. If current trends continue, there will be consequences not just for young people, but for all of us."