Coalition presses for debt-free higher education

At-large City Councilor Julia Mejia addresses activists gathered at the State House to support legislation that would make public higher education in Massachusetts debt-free. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

On Monday nearly 100 students, elected officials and advocates for affordable higher education gathered at the State House to urge state and federal lawmakers to make good on promises to make college financially feasible for all.

Calling on President Biden to follow through on his vow to cancel student debt, as well as urging members of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education to make a decision on the future of its Debt Free Act, were members of Zero Debt Massachusetts, PHENOM (Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) and the Fair Share Amendment Campaign, among others.

“I graduated UMass Amherst after four years with $32,750 in debt for what is allegedly a public education. … And we’re expecting students to pay tens of thousands of dollars every single semester and then still graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” said Timmy Sullivan, executive director of PHENOM.

Others told stories of financial hardship — putting off paying off credit cards, buying property and other forms of upward mobility because of massive student debts.

Nationwide, Americans are struggling with $1.7 trillion in student debt, and Massachusetts has a fairly large piece of that pie.

Zero Debt Massachusetts Executive Director Claudio Martinez made a plea to lawmakers to step in.

“Local foundations and universities endowments benefitted tremendously from their investments in the ‘student loans Wall Street bonanza’ of the last 20 years,” Martinez wrote in a statement to news media, “but these strong members of Massachusetts’ business community, as well as the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education leaders, have so far been silent about the $35 billion student debt crisis affecting almost 1 million Massachusetts residents, and have offered little support to students, families and communities organizing for the cancellation of student debt and a high quality public and debt-free higher education system worthy of Massachusetts.”

The Massachusetts Legislature’s Debt Free Higher Education Act — the latest in a slew of stunted attempts at mitigating the student debt crisis in the Bay State — provides that “Notwithstanding the provisions of any general or special law to the contrary,” eligible students would have tuition and fees paid for a higher education degree at a public institution paid for by the state.

In its meeting yesterday, the Joint Committee on Education opted to create a commission to review affordability by July 2023 — leaving the future of the legislation up in the air.

However, in addition to the act, Zero Debt and the other organizations have called for additional provisions, including the creation of a “Higher Ed, Free of Debt” tuition-free public post-secondary system for all, with a grant program to cover other costs such as room and board, food, transportation, books and supplies for low-income students — as determined by Pell Grant income eligibility.

Moreover, groups like the Fair Share Amendment Campaign have called for the approval of the so-called millionaires’ tax, officially called the Fair Share Amendment, which would create an additional tax of 4% on a person’s annual income above $1 million. If approved by voters, the law would raise an estimated $1.5 billion for education and transportation.

Nationally, the call for President Biden to cancel student debt has been growing. With a pause on repayment set to end as coronavirus recovery continues, similar protests have cropped up across the country. On Monday, hundreds came out in Washington DC to demand the president take action.

Somaya Laroussi of the I Have a Future Coalition and Revere Youth In Action stood up Monday afternoon and told those gathered what will keep happening if student debt continues to grow unchecked.

“After we are set up for immense debt, women, especially women of color, enter a workforce that discriminately underpays us for the same amount of work and leads us to needing even more time than the average white man to get ourselves out of debt. Ultimately it ends up creating and feeding into a vicious cycle of poverty, and this cycle needs to end,” she said.

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