Op-Ed: Making college more affordable

In MassLive, Dec. 14, 2015

This winter break, college students are bringing home more than just loads of laundry: they’re also bringing mounting loads of debt.

Student debt is a simmering crisis for young adults and their families. Nationally, 40 million people owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loans. In Massachusetts, the average student loan debt has increased by nearly 75 percent over the past decade, from $17,000 to more than $29,000. As college costs continue rise, this will only get worse.

Simply put, this is unfair and unsustainable, both for families struggling to pay tuition bills, and for our wider society, which benefits tremendously from a well-educated workforce. Skyrocketing debt is forcing young adults to delay marriage, home ownership and family-building. Student debt pushes graduates out of essential but lower-paying public service jobs like teaching. As a recent law school graduate, homeowner, and young father, I’m familiar with these types of financial strains.

I also know that in many cases, rising costs and a weak job market have combined to force many young people to forgo college altogether. These are some of the reasons why I’m so committed to tackling this issue in the Senate.

This year, for example, I joined a bipartisan group of legislators to override $5.2 million in funding cuts to UMass. I also voted to give UMass the ability to directly keep in-state tuition dollars paid by students, improving transparency and finally aligning UMass with the vast majority of other state universities.

In addition, I support a bill that would create an income tax deduction (up to $5000 per year) for contributions made to qualified college savings and 529 plans. Similar to an IRA, these plans allow families to save and pay for college tax-free. More than 30 states already provide incentives to invest in these types of plans. We need to catch up.

I also support a bill that provides full tuition, after financial aid and gift aid, for all residents who attend community college in Massachusetts, modeled after a highly successful program in Tennessee. Community colleges educate nearly half of Massachusetts college students, training them for valuable careers while also offering an affordable path to a 4-year degree.

There are also innovative programs happening locally that we can use as models. STCC and Westfield State, for example, set up a transfer program for students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree at a maximum 4 year total cost of $30,000 in tuition and mandatory fees. This approach gives families a highly valuable tool while saving for college: a fixed savings target.

Massachusetts is a global center of education and knowledge. A highly educated population is the key to our economic future. Alarmingly, while other states like Indiana and Tennessee are taking significant steps to make college affordable, Massachusetts is increasingly falling behind.

In this knowledge-based economy, a college degree has never been more important. Unfortunately, rising costs have also made it increasingly out of reach, robbing young people of their full potential. We can change that.

Eric P. Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District.

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