Student loan smackdown?

The student loan fight has found a battleground state: Illinois.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has made student debt one of his pet issues. Durbin is sponsoring or co-sponsoring several bills in various stages of the legislative process that he says will unburden current borrowers and protect new ones.

At the same time, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is leading a multistate investigation of mammoth loan servicer Sallie Mae in response to complaints that the lender's practices are misleading and opaque.

"We want to make sure we just don't have a generation of students who end up as debt slaves for the rest of their lives," Madigan said. "The whole goal of education is to give people opportunity."

Borrowers nationwide have more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans, and defaults have been on the rise. In the final three months of 2013, 11.5 percent of student loans were at least 90 days late, according to the Federal Reserve of New York. In Illinois, the three-year default rate was 14.1 percent, while the nationwide rate is a little worse at 14.7 percent, according to Department of Education numbers.

The Senate is expected to consider a bill this week from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would let borrowers refinance existing student loans at lower interest rates. Durbin is a co-sponsor and outspoken advocate for the bill, which also has the support of the White House. The bill would affect 1.7 million Illinois residents, according to Durbin's office.

"The refinancing is the only way for some of these students to get out from under," said Durbin, who has been touring area colleges to promote student loan reform.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the bill does not address major issues in higher education.

"This bill doesn't make college more affordable, reduce the amount of money students will have to borrow, or do anything about the lack of jobs grads face in the Obama economy," he said in the statement.

The state attorney general's office has heard an increasing number of complaints about Sallie Mae's loan servicing, according to Madigan, including allegations of aggressive collection practices and confusing or obscure information. Her office declined to elaborate on specific actions that could be taken as a result of the probe or comment on a possible timeline.

Madigan said she was supportive of Durbin's and Warren's efforts regarding student loan legislation.

"We've got a good group of people in this country doing everything they can to try to make education affordable, and I'm so glad a group of them are from Illinois," she said.