Monmouth College students in one of lecturer Robin Johnson’s classes were treated to a very special guest lecturer on Feb. 24 – U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Durbin discussed several issues with the Politics and Government in the Midwest class, including the high prices of gasoline and higher education. While on campus, he also met with Monmouth College president Mauri Ditzler and briefly addressed the media.
Durbin is the assistant majority leader (also known as the majority whip), the second-ranked position in the Senate. He was elected to the Senate in 1996, filling the seat left vacant by the retirement of Paul Simon, one of the men he credited for shaping his political viewpoints.
The Springfield resident told the class that Illinois is “a reflection of what’s happening in the country. … It’s big piece of real estate with a big cross-section of the population. There are areas of southern Illinois that are south of Richmond, Va., on the map. They grow cotton there. It’s the South. By the time you get to top of the state, you’re very much in the North.”
He touched on the 2012 presidential race, noting that in non-war years, the election is “driven more by the economy than anything else. … Voters base their decision on ‘Which candidate is more likely to make things better for my family?’”
The Democratic spin on that, he said, is that the economy has been on the upswing for 23 consecutive months and the unemployment rate has dropped for five straight months. The latter number is significant, he said, because in order to effectively address the nation’s ever-increasing debt, “We have to have people working and paying taxes, not drawing unemployment. We need to right the ship that way, and then we can get serious about debt reduction.”
A subject near and dear to the students’ hearts is the cost of a college education. A graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, Durbin reported that it costs $50,000 a year to go there today, and $150,000 for the three-year course of study.
“It’s scandalous, and I’ve told them so,” he said. “When the microphones are off, administrators will say, ‘We charge it, because people will pay it.’ Their students may never be lawyers, but there’s one thing they will be, and that’s far in debt.”
“I knew Illinois was in some trouble with money, but I don’t think I knew how bad it was,” reacted Taylor Milliken, a senior from Galva. “When Sen. Durbin spoke about college tuition, I was shocked at how expensive the law schools are and that they raise their prices simply because people will pay it. Graduation this year is going to come with a lot of loans to pay off, and from the senator’s speech, it sounds like it will only be getting more expensive for this year’s prospective students.”
Durbin also addressed online and other for-profit universities. While only 10 percent of students in higher education attend such schools, Durbin reported they are responsible for 45 percent of the country’s college loan defaults. He told the story of a woman in Chicago who wanted to get into police work and went $90,000 in debt earning a degree from such a school. When it came time to find a job, she was told she had a “worthless diploma.” Said Durbin, “It’s an outrage.”
Later, as he addressed a small media pool, he added, “We have to realize the debt we’re passing on to our students. It’s unconscionable.”
On higher gas prices, Durbin said the problem is simple: “The oil companies have so much power. They run the prices up, and any excuse will do.”
He told the class about a sophisticated tracking system that Walmart uses. The company can use it, for example, to track how much was spent at the Springfield Walmart in the last hour. What the company has found is that their sales are directly related to the price of gasoline. When those prices rise, sales drop.
“I think the price of gasoline will be the unsung determining factor in this election,” said Durbin. “You may not follow the stock market, but you follow the price of gasoline, because it affects you every day.”
In response to questions from both the class and the media, Durbin touched on gay marriage, calling it a generational issue.
“The younger generation can’t imagine why it’s even an issue. The older generation is more skeptical.” He told the students, “In your lifetime, it will become more common than not. We’re moving in that direction, and it’s the right thing to do. Whether it will happen at the federal level is not as certain. You have to remember there’s a Supreme Court.”
Looking ahead to the year in Congress, Durbin said that two issues on his plate are the federal highway bill and “what to do about the U.S. Post Office.” He also predicted that, due to the split in legislative power, “This is not going to be a major year of accomplishment in Congress.”