A college degree has never cost so much. Since the Baby Boomers were students, the price of a diploma has shot up more than 1,000 percent. As a result, it’s becoming impossible for middle class families to pay for higher education without taking on substantial debt. 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 a result, even the most responsible student loan borrowers find it hard to stay afloat, especially in the face of a dysfunctional system that protects banks and loan servicers instead of students and their families.
Last fall, as just one example, ACS Education Services, a federal student loan servicer, was accused of charging excessive late fees and flooding borrowers with harassing debt collection calls.
Right now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is pursuing Navient for steering borrowers into costly repayment plans, supplying wrong information about their loans and ignoring borrowers’ requests for help.
There is a disturbing pattern here. Too many students don’t know what their rights are when it comes to borrowing loans to pay for school. Banks and servicers often make the terms as confusing as possible and take advantage of students with deceptive practices. Once students fall behind, they don’t know where to turn for help.
That’s why State Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster and I introduced the Student Loan Bill of Rights. This law, modeled after a successful effort in Connecticut, will give students and their families new rights and protections as they navigate the loan repayment process.
First, the bill will create a Student Loan Ombudsman to defend the interests of students. This appointed official will be a one-stop customer service shop so students can clearly understand their rights and responsibilities. In a system filled with advocates for the banks, there will finally be a dedicated advocate for students and their families.
Second, the bill will enhance oversight of student loan servicers. It will create new standards to prevent abusive practices like misleading students and harassing them with late-night debt collection calls.
Third, the law will empower the Commissioner of Banks to investigate loan servicers who break the rules — and to deliver results.
Finally, the Student Loan Bill of Rights will give the state new power to fine servicers who break the rules. It can also require servicers to repay students who have been taken advantage of.
There is much more we have to do, of course. It is essential to lower the cost of higher education, especially at our community colleges, state colleges, and universities. We also need more support for vocational and technical training, and we need to expect our universities — both public and private — to do a better job controlling costs.
But protecting students’ rights in the borrowing process is an important step. At a time when the Federal Government is failing to act, we have an obligation in Massachusetts to step forward and protect our students and their families.
It’s time for a student loan bill of rights.
Senator Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.