Members of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education are investigating student debt. They hope to make some recommendations on the complex issue of the cost of higher education and the burden it has become on many people.
Committee members held a public hearing at Holyoke Community College on Monday and heard from students juggling multiple jobs to pay for college and living expenses while confronting heavy debt and an uncertain job market upon graduation. The legislators were urged to consider big changes to a higher education financing system that most agree is unsustainable in its present form.
Trevor Eliason, a student member of the Board of Trustees at Springfield Technical Community College, said Massachusetts needs to increase state funding for higher education and reduce what students are charged.
Sixty-five percent of Massachusetts students take out loans to pay for college. The state ranks 12th in the country in the number of students carrying debt. The average student debt in Massachusetts is $27,200.
Emily Fitzgerald of Pittsfield is a political science major at Western New England University. She told the committee she will owe $45,000 on her student loan by the time she graduates next year. She said she was grateful the legislature is looking for a way to help people like her.
At the state’s 15 community colleges, often considered the gateway to higher education for low income people, tuition and fees have increased by 60 percent since the Great Recession ,when the state’s higher education budget was slashed. Holyoke Community College President William Messner said people are not going to get jobs if the government doesn’t do more to fund to higher education.
The fastest growing segment of the study body at Holyoke Community College is the so-called nontraditional student. These include military veterans and the unemployed who need new skills to re-enter the labor market. Lori Wayson , who coordinates a program for nontraditional students at the school, said many of the students qualify for free or reduced tuition but they struggle to pay for everyday living expenses.
A spokesman for a group that advocates for higher education in Massachusetts urged the committee to revive a proposal made several years ago by Governor Deval Patrick to provide two years of free education at the state’s community colleges. Ferd Wulkan of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts said the state should also look into eliminating student loans.
This was the second of six public hearings the committee has scheduled around the state on the student debt issue. The committee is expected to issue a report early next year.