The public higher education system in Massachusetts was designed to make public higher education accessible to the working classes, with costs to students as close to free as possible. Remarkably for more than a century that remained largely true and is responsible for both America’s stunning economic growth and, especially after World War II, with the growth of a broad middle class.
But no more.
Over the past thirty years, due in large measure to tax cuts resulting in massive cuts to public higher education, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically. Until 1987, a student could attend UMass Amherst and graduate completely debt-free by working a 10-hour minimum-wage job during the school year. Now that same student graduates with over $30,000 in debt, hampering their ability to choose a career they are most suited for, start a family, buy a house, and live without a weight of debt over their head. Massachusetts prides itself as a leader in education, but has largely ignored the needs of its public higher education system.
We believe that now is the moment to fight to rebuild the promise of fully-funded public higher education to our citizens. The Finish Line Grant is one step on the path to fully-funded public higher education in Massachusetts. It would give a one year scholarship to cover tuition and fees for residents of Massachusetts who have successfully completed at least one year in a two-year or four-year program, but may not be able to continue due to financial hardship.
We know the student debt crisis is spiraling out of control. Massachusetts residents owe over $24 billion and that debt is an enormous drain on our economy. Cumulatively, Massachusetts residents lose over $2.5 billion a year is forgone savings and equity due to our student loan debt. Too many of those borrowers have not finished college and earned a degree. And with that, they lose major earning potential. In 2013, college dropouts earned $13,600 less annually than their peers with a bachelor’s degree. This further hampers their ability to repay their student loan debt.
This is not just an individual problem, but one that affects the Commonwealth’s whole economy. The Board of Higher Education estimates that there will be a shortfall of 55,000-65,000 associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to be awarded in Massachusetts by 2025. One of the ways we can fix this is by increasing our graduation rates. Right now, only 38.2% of public four-year students finish on time and only 58.3% finish in six years. Those numbers are even more upsetting at the community college level, with only 15.9% of students graduating in three years. PHENOM believes the low college completion rate is tied to the rising cost of public higher education in Massachusetts. Without adequate aid, students are forced to attend part-time or take time off to save up money to continue. The Finish Line Grant would help students stay in school full-time and on track to graduate on-time.
We hope you take seriously the call for debt-free higher education in Massachusetts, and the Finish Line Grant is an important step in increasing real access and affordability for residents of Massachusetts. This is truly a bipartisan issues, and we are thrilled to have the support of both Senator Tarr and Representative Garballey as the lead sponsors of this legislation.
We hope that you let H.1042/S.683 favorably out of the Committee.
Thank you for your consideration.
The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM)
Submitted to the Joint Committee on Higher Education on 10/7/15