Students Fight Back Against Skyrocketing Student Debt

Massachusetts has gone from best to worst in terms of student debt since 2004.

Photo: A sign reading “education shouldn’t be a debt sentence” from the Rally for Public Education in May 2017. (Zac Bears/PHENOM)

A disturbing MassBudget report released today shows that lawmakers have broken the promise of affordable higher education for students and families across the state. While the report re-confirmed the over 30% per student cut in state funding for public colleges, it also showed that student debt for public college students has risen faster in Massachusetts than in any other state except Delaware since 2004. We’ve gone from 49th in the country in terms of average public college student debt to 10th.

Student debt is crushing students and families hopes and becoming a drag on our state’s economy.

In the face of this debt crisis, students are fighting back and demanding that state lawmakers guarantee a #DebtFreeFuture for past and future public college students in Massachusetts. Over 500 students are expected to gather at the State House on Monday for Public Higher Education Advocacy Day 2018. Students will be attending over 50 scheduled meetings with Beacon Hill lawmakers demanding that they take action on several measures before the legislative session ends this summer and provide $500 million in new annual funds for public colleges and universities through the Fair Share Amendment on the ballot in November.

“I knew I was going to graduate with debt — it’s common knowledge,” PHENOM Bridgewater State student organizer Jen Ford said in the Boston Globe. “As I get older and thinking about implications of debt, it’s different. It’s stressful.”

As I wrote in WBUR’s Edify in January, state lawmakers and Governor Baker are only taking small steps and haven’t presented a broad agenda for fixing this problem. Luckily, students and community members know we need to do better. Students and educators have been holding listening sessions on campuses across the state and holding legislative town halls with lawmakers to develop a plan.

Beacon Hill lawmakers can take action this year to begin to address the issue:

  • Over 100 lawmakers support the Finish Line Grant, which would provide one free year of public college to students who are struggling to complete their degrees due to financial difficulties.
  • The Student Loan Borrowers Bill of Rights is moving forward and would protect student borrowers from predatory and unfair lending practices, create a Student Loan Ombudsman office to address student debt issues, and push back against Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump’s elimination of protections for students and student borrowers.
  • A bill to provide access to health insurance for adjunct faculty has support of all of our campuses, faculty and staff unions and student groups.

But what we really need is the $500 million investment from the Fair Share Amendment to begin to reverse decades of cuts and address the student debt crisis. This $500 million would include funding for student debt forgiveness, equal pay and benefits for adjunct faculty, additional full-time faculty and staff, significant deferred maintenance needs and, most importantly, moving towards a debt-free public college system.

Students and families can’t wait any longer for lawmakers to address this crisis. The cost of college and affordable higher education is the top issue on the minds of Massachusetts residents according to recent polls. Now is the time for a #DebtFreeFuture.

Zac Bears is the executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.