U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7) is working on legislation to could make it easier for first-generation college students to pay for their education and he wants West Side residents’ input.

The details are still being worked out, Davis said, but the goals are clear. The congressman wants to create something that would not only help cover tuition but also things like room and board, transportation and supplies.

Many teens on the West Side and elsewhere in the 7th Congressional District are able to get into college but have trouble staying enrolled because they can’t afford it, Davis said.

Since last November, Davis’ Education Advisory Committee has been working out the details. The committee held a public hearing on Feb. 18 at Austin’s Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield and the congressman said that residents are welcome to call his office to share their ideas of what the bill should include.

As Davis explained during the Feb. 18 meeting, the committee is just one of the many committees he has set up to help him create legislation.

“We have advisory committees on almost everything we can think of,’ he said. “When we run for office we ask [voters] to give us the ability to represent them. The reality is, I don’t know what you think and how you feel, and what your priorities are, so I spent a great deal of time asking people how they feel.”

The idea from this particular bill, he said, came directly from conversations with constituents.

“Every year, I encounter students who went [to college] for the first semester, but couldn’t go the next semester because they were in debt to the school,” he said.

According to a recent study by LendEDU, which describes itself as “a marketplace for student loans and student loan refinance,” 70 percent of college graduates who live in the 7th Congressional District leave school with debt. The average student debt per borrower in Davis’s district is almost $30,000.

“In 2017, more than 44 million Americans are working to repay student debt,” the LendEDU study notes. “And, the average borrower is working to repay more than $28,000 after graduation.”

Tracey Ginwright is a committee member and Chicago Public Schools’ deputy chief of schools for Network 5, which encompasses the portions of the West Side east of Kenton Avenue. She said she encountered many graduates who were hurt by the high costs of higher education.

“We see them on a corner, working [at local businesses] because they started out and couldn’t persist,” Ginwright said. “We really want them to persist.”

The committee member and former Austin High School principal Earl Williams said that he was a first-generation college student and that he went to college on a scholarship. Back then, college was much cheaper. That’s no longer the case even though the value of higher education is still high, he said.

“We know if we can get even one person in the family to go to college, that family is changed forever,” Williams said.

Committee member Dr. Lois Gueno said that it wasn’t just about helping students pay their tuition. They also need money for textbooks, supplies, transportation and personal hygiene.

“There are costs to attending college and those costs all add up,” Gueno said.

Wilbert Cook, a self-described community activist, believes that the colleges giving back to the communities they recruit athletes from would help address the problem.

“We don’t hold schools accountable for millions of dollars they get off of basketball players,” he said. “We got to tap into that and get them to contribute more to the community.”

David Sanders, the president of Malcolm X College, said that more Chicago youth should take advantage of city community colleges, arguing that they offer great programs and that anyone who earns an associate’s degree can transfer to a number of four-year colleges in the Chicago area.

“If you have a 17 ACT score, 410 SAT and a B average, and you declare a major, you can go to college for free for three years,” Sanders said. “If you maintain your average for three years, you can now transfer at reduced tuition or [no tuition] at all.”

Nick Alan, a first-generation college student who lives in the West Loop, said that college changed his family. He and his siblings attending college inspired his mother to return to school, he said.

“If I hadn’t gotten scholarship money to go to school, I wouldn’t have been able to go,” Alan said.

Catherine Jones, an Austin resident and a member of Douglass Academy High School’s Local School Council, said that the experience of seeing her two sons go to college showed her the burdens students face when they try to get an education beyond bachelor’s degree. She asked David to include something to address the financial burden.

One resident said she was concerned that even if Davis manages to get some kind of financial help for first-generation college students, he might not be able to keep it in. The congressman said he wasn’t worried.

“Once you get an appropriation into the system, it’s not difficult to get it re-appropriated unless you didn’t do a good job,” Davis said.

To give your input, contact Davis’s district office, located at 2746 West Madison St., at (773) 533-7520. Office hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can also visit his website at davis.house.gov.