How Massachusetts Can Fight the Student Debt Crisis

Student debt holders in the state of Massachusetts owe an average of $31,821 per borrower. As a whole, this adds up to over $35.9 billion. That’s billions of dollars that borrowers directly sink into paying off debt, lost to the economy. In a pandemic where millions have faced economic insecurity and housing instability, student loans add an additional layer of hardship that many can’t afford. What could it mean for the Commonwealth if no one had student debt? What would borrowers be able to do with their careers and their futures without the burden of paying off hundreds of dollars per month?

In January, the Biden administration announced that the suspension of student debt payments would be extended through September 30, 2021. This news is welcome, as we are still in a pandemic and the economic repercussions of widespread unemployment and the following recession are still widely felt. However, we are going to suffer from the economic impact of COVID-19 for years to come, even after the pandemic is over. 

Only the federal government has the ability to cancel student debt in total, but Massachusetts has the ability to make sure that borrowers aren’t squeezed by the weight of loans. They also have the ability to make sure that no student in the future has to suffer the weight of student loans through making four-year public college and community college free for all residents.

On the last day of session back in January, the legislature passed a version of the “Student Loan Borrowers’ Bill of Rights” which finally requires student loan debt servicers to be licensed, and makes it easier for those with problems to get help through the creation of a new Student Loan Ombudsman. There are shameful abuses that need to stop, but the underlying issue isn’t just the abuses: it’s the debt itself!

Since 2001, average spending per public higher education student statewide has dropped by 31%, despite huge increases in the cost of tuition, room and board. The lack of investment in our public education system drives that increase in tuition, as colleges feel the squeeze of austerity and lean on higher tuition and fees to make up necessary funds.  We’ve known about this higher education funding crunch for years, and there’s a blue-ribbon commission report that was filed by the 2014 Higher Education Finance Commission. Average tuition per full time enrollment has gone up 29% since 2001 in the time average spending by the state has decreased.

The first step to getting the student loan crisis under control is to stop underfunding our public colleges & universities. We need to pass the Cherish Act, which would bring funding levels back up to 2001 levels. This bill, backed by a coalition of education groups and unions such as Fund our Future and the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, would raise more than $500 million for public higher education once fully phased in. The bill was filed by Senator Jo Comerford in the Senate and by Representatives Sean Garballey and Paul Mark in the House last session, but was sent to study.

The second step is passing the “Act to guarantee debt-free public higher education”, filed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge in the Senate and Rep. Natalie Higgins in the House. The bill, supported by organizations such as the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), would guarantee that every Massachusetts resident has a right to a tuition-free, fee-free, and debt-free public higher education. Like the Cherish Act we just mentionned, this bill was also sent to study last session, despite widespread support from students, educators, and unions.

These bills are the only way to ensure that future Massachusetts public college students will never have to face the burden of student debt. Pre-pandemic, the state had the 10th highest student debt burden in the country and the 6th lowest public college budget. According to MassBudget, Massachusetts’ student debt growth was the second fastest in the country over the past 15 years. This burden has only gotten worse with the economic devastation of the pandemic. It’s time for a change, and the Legislature can’t keep sitting around waiting for the federal government to come in and grant borrowers a one-time debt jubilee. We need to take action to make sure no student in the future has to suffer from the burden of student debt, and we hope the Legislature will do their job and make it a priority to pass these bills this session.