Durbin explains new, improved Pell grants program to SIUE students

Belleville News-Democrat
April 9, 2010
By Elizabeth Donald

EDWARDSVILLE -- Courtney Davis is the first in her family to go to college.

Dan Heck uses a wheelchair and plans to be an elementary teacher.

Lara Jennings is a single mother and dental student.

Each of them stood with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Friday morning and said that federal Pell grants were the reason they are able to attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Davis said she can be an example to her little brothers that they can grow up and go to college, as Pell grants "put a foot in the door" toward her goals.

"I plan to prove that diamonds can emerge from the rough of East St. Louis," she said. "I am one of them, and I am proud to say that I am a Dean's List scholar."

Heck said that 89 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, and they comprise 10 percent of the population. He wants to be an exception, in honor of the importance his late parents placed on education.

"I want to be the person that gives back," he said. "Without Pell grants, it would never have been a remote possibility."

Jennings said Pell grants allow her to live on campus and help with day care for her daughter as she works toward her biology and medical science degree, with a focus on dentisty. "This investment in education will see good returns," she said.

Durbin introduced the students after discussing the new federal legislation on Pell grants and student loans, which was included with the health-care reform package.

Among other things, the legislation ends federal subsidies for bank student loans. Durbin said the government had "reached an indefensible point wasting billions" on the bank subsidies.

By getting banks out as the middle men, Durbin said, students will pay lower fees and interest rates and save the government $6 billion a year.

One-third of that will go toward deficit reduction, and the remaining two-thirds will go into increasing the Pell grant to $6,000 a year and lowering the cap on student loan payments to 10 percent of income. In addition, if the student majors in a critical area like nursing, the loans are forgiven after 10 years of repayment.

"This is an investment in our future," Durbin said.

While many aspects of the health care package were part of the side deals made to garner votes, Durbin said this wasn't one of them -- it just got combined in reconcilation. And the banks fought against the proposal, he said.

"They hated it," he said. "Sallie Mae hated it the most, since they carry one in four student loans."

Currently, nearly all SIUE students receive some kind of financial assistance -- 12,383 out of 13,195 students, or about 94 percent. About 3,518 of them use Pell grants, or 27 percent. Under the new guidelines, about 300 more students will be eligible next year.