U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin led a discussion with students and alumni during a panel today about their student loan debt and Eastern Illinois University’s continued efforts to alleviate the financial pressure.
The panel consisted of EIU students and alumni, President Bill Perry and Carol Waldmann, EIU’s interim director of the Office of Financial Aid.
“Eastern Illinois University has made many strides to lessen student loan debt by not increasing tuition, offering scholarships and grants, and providing students with a dedicated financial aid staff focused on and guiding them through the process,” Perry said. For the 2014-15 academic year, EIU’s Board of Trustees chose not to increase tuition; the previous year’s tuition was only increased by 1.43 percent, he added.
The university also offers grants, work studies and scholarships such as the Panther Promise Scholarship. This award provides up to $2,500 toward tuition per year for eligible students and is renewable for up to four years for freshmen and two years for transfer students, he said.
Throughout the panel, students shared their own personal stories about how scholarships and graduate assistantships at EIU helped lessen their financial burden. Waldmann said the percentage of EIU students defaulting on their student loans is 6.7 percent compared to the national average of 14.7 percent.
Currently, the Office of Financial Aid has 17 dedicated staff members to walk students through the student loan process and provide in-person guidance to students every step of the way.
Shelaina Reid, a family and consumer sciences major and student member of the panel, said she has a great relationship with the Office of Financial Aid, and has sat down with staff there many times to discuss financial aid options.
One of those staff members, Mandi Starwalt, a financial aid adviser manager, spends her days guiding students like Reid through the financial aid process and helping them create a budget and plan for the future.
“Many times students do not need to take the whole amount of their federal loans. I will sit down with them and chat about creating a budget and see if they really need the full amount. We will also investigate other options such as scholarships, grants and work studies.
“I also always direct our students to the federal website to check their repayment options before they graduate or leave school. I want them to think about their loans before they walk across the graduation stage,” she continued.
As a previous student with loan debt, Starwalt understands what students are going through and how loans are sometimes intimidating. “I’m there to keep the issue at the forefront of their minds and guide them through the process.”
Overall, Starwalt said, students typically borrow $20,108 in federal loans for EIU’s undergraduate study. The federal loan payment over 10 years for this amount is approximately $231.40 per month.
During the panel, Durbin discussed a bill he is sponsoring, called the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, which would reduce the interest rates that students must pay.