U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talks Dreamers, student debt, and more

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

NEA’s Higher Education Advocate recently had the time to sit down with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to talk about Public Service Loan Forgiveness, DACA, adjunct faculty, and more.

Q: A reported 241,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as children, and are eligible for protection from deportation by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, are college students. Now that President Trump has announced an end to DACA, how can NEA members help ensure these young people have a bright future here, in the country they now call home?

I would encourage NEA members to use their voice to support the Dream Act and Dreamers across the country. We saw how vital public support for the Affordable Care Act has been in saving our health care system. I think America’s voice will be equally important as we fight to give these Dreamers their shot at the American dream.

Q: About 25 percent of grad students owe at least $100,000 in student debt, and unfortunately if they become adjunct faculty members—like two-thirds of all faculty—they can expect to earn about $25,000 a year. Something that would help is to make adjunct faculty eligible for federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which is exactly the aim of your 2017 bill, The Adjunct Faculty Loan Fairness Act. Can you tell us more about who you have in mind with this bill?

Adjunct and contingent faculty members play an important role in college classrooms across the country. They have advanced degrees. They teach classes and spend many hours outside the classroom preparing for class. They hold office hours, grade papers and give feedback to students. They provide advice and write letters of recommendation. Students rely on them. They have student debt like their full-time colleagues, yet because of a quirk in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, they don’t qualify for assistance.

My bill would recognize the critical contributions of adjunct faculty to America’s higher education system by fixing this. Consider someone like Alyson, an adjunct professor from Chicago, who graduated with $65,000 in student loan debt and, after 10 years of on-time payments, has more than $56,000 left. Like most adjuncts, Alyson strings together multiple teaching assignments along with part-time work to afford her monthly living expenses and minimum student loan payments. She comes from a family of educators and considers teaching her dream job. I think the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program should acknowledge her commitment and sacrifices.

Q: Many NEA members were disappointed at the recent rollback of Obama-era regulations on for-profit colleges, which have been shown to prey on students. What’s next for for-profits? How can we help students avoid disaster at their hands?

For-profit colleges enroll 9 percent of all post-secondary students, but take in 17 percent of all federal student aid and account for 37 percent of all federal student loan defaults. Over the last decade, the for-profit college industry has used flashy ads filled, too often, with false promises to lure students into enrolling. These students then amass enormous amounts of debt and leave with a credential that potential employers don’t even recognize. [Before regulations were put into place], it was an era that a group of state attorneys general recently referred to as “open season” on students. Unfortunately, Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration are now engaged in the wholesale dismantling of protections for students and taxpayers.

While I work in Congress to maintain and expand protections in the law, I ask for your help in classrooms across the country to make sure students have good information about their college options. Often, community colleges provide much better programs and for a fraction of the cost, but can’t compete with the for-profit college advertising barrage your students face online, on television, or on local public transportation. Together, can help prevent students – who are doing the right thing by seeking higher education – from becoming prey for for-profit colleges.

Q: You once were an associate professor at Southern Illinois University College of Medicine, more than 30 years ago. Is there anything you learned from working in higher education that has been valuable to you as a senator?

In addition to having worked in higher education, I know what it’s like to need a hand from the government to afford a higher education. I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. My mom was an immigrant. She came to America from Lithuania with her mother and her two siblings when she was 2 years old. Neither my mom nor my dad graduated from high school. But my mother understood that education was the key to the American Dream. She was adamant that all three of her boys would go to college. And we did.

I remember the conversation with my mother when I told her that I’d narrowed my college decision down to two schools—Stanford and Georgetown. She said: I’ve never heard of either of those schools. Where are they? I said, “Stanford is in California.” She said, “Oh no, you’re not going to California. You’ll never come back.” When I told her that Georgetown is in Washington, D.C., she thought for a moment and said, “Your older brother is working in Maryland; he can keep an eye on you. OK, you can go to Georgetown.” Then she asked, “How are you going to pay for it?” My mom had been a widow for a few years and we didn’t have much money. I assured her that I had it all figured out. The truth is, I had no idea how I was going to pay for Georgetown. But Mom believed me, so off I went.

Luckily, five years before I started college, the Soviet Union had launched a satellite into space—Sputnik—that struck fear in the American public. We thought we were losing the space race. So Congress passed something called the National Defense Education Act, NDEA, to open up the doors of America’s colleges and universities to working-class kids like me. With the help of NDEA loans, plus summer jobs in places like slaughter houses and railroad switch yards, I was able to pay my way through Georgetown University and Georgetown law school.

I’ve never forgotten the public investment that allowed me to get an education. Without it, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s why I believe so strongly in the federal government’s role in helping to make quality higher education accessible to all students.

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