MA Lawmakers Addressing Student Debt

Dec 9, 2013

State lawmakers heard from college students and administrators as well as higher education advocates addressing the issues and potential solutions regarding rising student debt.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

A state committee addressing the rising costs of student loans held a hearing in western Massachusetts today.

Students and administrators from regional colleges along with higher education advocates raised concerns and offered possible solutions regarding rising student debt. The public hearing at Berkshire Community College Monday was the final of seven such meetings held across Massachusetts by the state’s legislative Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt. Brendan Peltier is a junior at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

“I know all of my friends who attended private institutions are not in college anymore,” Peltier said. “They had to drop out or they have to go out and work because they can’t afford the $40-50,000 that it costs to attend. I think that’s scary.”

State representative Smitty Pigantelli is a member of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, which encompasses the subcommittee. The Democrat from Lenox says high schools need to help students pick colleges that financially fit them instead of trying to push a student to a more highly-regarded university.

“A greater responsibility or role of our public high schools on teaching students of where they are going in life,” Pignatelli said. “You shouldn’t be applying to a college that takes $50-60,000 to do it. It makes no sense. My concern is that our public high schools, and I’ll just say this only about the Berkshires, we are in competition with one another. I think that’s wrong.”

Peltier says he wished his high school guidance counselors spoke to him about the cost of certain schools. He says he applied to many private universities, but the affordability of a public college helped him decide on MCLA.

“The key is the cost,” Peltier said. “I’m going to be graduating with debts that I can manage. I can manage the loans that I’ve taken out while going off and having to apply to graduate school. I don’t have to worry about the second I graduate having to find a job because I can’t afford to pay off my loans.”

Only nine states have students carrying more debt than Massachusetts. Sixty-six percent of Massachusetts college students take out loans to pay for school and carry an average debt of nearly $28,500. From 2008 to 2011, the average debt for graduates of the University of Massachusetts system, other state universities, and community colleges increased 27 percent. Ferd Wulkan, who works with PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, says the state could create an agency focused on student loans. He suggests it could originate loans, purchase student debt and reissue the payments and also regulate the sale and resale of student loans between private institutions.

“The basic idea is that there shouldn’t be a profit motive in the case of educational loans,” said Wulkan.

School administrators did praise members of the committee for increasing the commonwealth’s higher education spending by $15 million in the 2014 fiscal budget and moving the state toward funding 50 percent of student costs at state colleges. Ken Haar, who works for PHENOM and Westfield State University, says the 50-50 split saved the state’s students about $1 million, in what would’ve been mostly new student debt.

“Nothing is going to make a bigger dent in student debt than curbing the actual cost of the public higher education system,” said Haar.

But, Pignatelli says he takes issue with the fact that 60 percent of the money given to students through the MASSGrant assistance program is used at private universities.

“I do have an issue with tax dollars going to a student going to an institution that has maybe tens of billions of dollars in their endowment,” said Pignatelli.  

The subcommittee hopes to file a report with specific recommendations in March.