DECATUR — A sophomore philosophy major planning to go to law school, Emma Prendergast of New Lenox enrolled at Millikin University because she wanted to make a good living someday.

Prendergast has abandoned the notion that she’ll complete her undergraduate work owing no more than $20,000, and now that any additional federally subsidized Stafford loans might carry double the interest rate, she faces having to give up her dreams as well.

“My debt is already $14,000, and I’ll have to start taking out private loans in addition to that,” she said. “I really don’t want to be a slave to my debt, and I don’t want to have to live in my parents’ basement. I want to be self-sufficient.”

Prendergast stood next to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in the Richards Treat University Center during his Thursday morning news conference to express support for a Senate bill that would keep the minimum interest rate on Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for one more year.

The bill would offset the cost by asking certain corporations employing three people or fewer to start paying corporate income tax.

Durbin stopped short of saying he could not support an alternative proposal passed last week in the House of Representatives but indicated it “troubles” him.

That bill would cut the $6 billion to $8 billion needed from the Prevention and Public Health Fund used for anti-smoking campaigns, health screenings, childhood immunizations, behavioral health services and primary care.

“I don’t think you ought to put the burden of health care for children on the backs of students at colleges and universities,” Durbin said.

Unless Congress acts, the minimum interest rate on Stafford loans will increase to 6.8 percent on July 1.

Durbin’s stop in Decatur was the second of three he made Thursday in Central Illinois. He met earlier with officials at Taylorville Memorial Hospital to discuss prescription drug shortages and later participated in a news conference in Clinton to oppose a proposed chemical waste facility at Clinton Landfill.

He also used the Millikin visit as a chance to lash out at for-profit colleges and universities, such as the Institute of Art in Chicago, actually located in Shaumburg, and Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. He said degrees awarded by such schools are worthless, and its graduates are more likely to default on their loans, leaving less for the federal government to loan out.

Cheryl Howerton, Millikin’s director of financial aid, said about 1,900 of the university’s 2,400-member enrollment rely on federal loans to pay their tuition and living expenses.

In his welcome to Durbin, university President Harold Jeffcoat said the rising cost of higher education is why Millikin is not raising the cost of its tuition nor its housing for the coming academic year.

“We want to keep down the amount of college debt that our students have to take on,” Jeffcoat said.

Gayle Saunders, president of Richland Community College, was among the attendees at Durbin’s news conference.

“We’re a much more affordable option, but this concerns our students, too,” she said in an interview. “They live from paycheck to paycheck, many of them have young families and are working full time and trying to get their education at the same time.”

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