The Center for Education Policy and Advocacy at the University of Massachusetts hosted its Student Debt Crisis Forum with Representative Mindy Domb and Senator Jo Comerford on Monday, March 1 at 6 p.m.
The forum started CEPA’s advocacy week. The 1.5-hour event began with presentations from CEPA on the Massachusetts student debt crisis, two bills CEPA is supporting to address the crisis, followed by remarks from both lawmakers and a question and answer session.
According to Barkha Bhandari, a junior economics student and presenter at the event, 21% of students with student loans are dropping out of four-year public universities nationwide. “So that’s what we’re talking about in the Massachusetts context. But it’s something that affects so many Americans, ”Bhandari said.
“And it also affects students’ personal ability to save for things like retirement in the future. So not only are you taking out a loan to continue your education, it’s almost like taking out a loan to pursue anything for the rest of your life, ”Bhandari said.
According to Bhandari, this debt crisis affects certain groups of people disproportionately and it affects people in terms of food insecurity and housing insecurity.
“UMass has been the number one restaurant for a very long time. But our restoration plans, for example, are something that not all students can afford, or because of COVID-19, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of students who can’t afford to find accommodation, ”Bhandari said. “By eliminating the cost of not only tuition and fees, but these other costs as well, we can meet the kind of material needs of students on campus.”
Legislation to fight student debt was the main theme of the evening. According to Aidan Mazagonwalla, CEPA’s Policy, Law and Research Coordinator, one of the goals of the forum was to educate lawmakers about certain bills that would help reduce student debt. During the event, CEPA advocated for two bills, “Law guaranteeing debt-free public higher education“(HD.1148) and”An Act to Support Educational Opportunities for All“(HD.1147), both tabled by Representative Natalie Higgins.
According to CEPA, Bill HD.1148 would eliminate tuition and fees on all public Massachusetts campuses or for Massachusetts residents with a high school diploma or GED. Students eligible for the Pell scholarship would also receive additional grants that could cover registration, room and board, textbooks, transportation, etc. rate, according to CEPA. Money raised through taxes would be used to subsidize the cost of public higher education, preschool education, and child care for middle and lower class residents of Massachusetts.
The two lawmakers spoke about the bills they have tabled or are co-sponsoring to deal with the debt crisis.
“I deposited the Cherish Act. And so it would make… tuition more affordable…. we could better fund adjunct professors, which I know is a common concern of students and unions, ”Comerford said. “The Cherish Act is therefore something that I am extremely proud to table in partnership with Mindy.”
CEPA staff said the Cherish law was not enough. “It was great that they were here and the specific pieces of legislation that they talked about, the Cherish Act, is really important,” Bhandari said. “But we will continue to do the work of highlighting the law on the free future of deputies and the endowment tax because these are important.”
During their remarks, lawmakers urged students to tell their stories and advocate for the bills they want to pass. “I would say two things. First, don’t let us escape. Do not do that. And we have thousands of choices to make every day as lawmakers on a bill, ”Domb said.
“Nothing gets done in Beacon Hill… unless people do. Because there are too many problems to be solved. And so what’s done is what people ask to be done, ”Comerford said.
During the question and answer session, lawmakers were asked if they supported the two CEPA-approved bills to address the student debt crisis. Both lawmakers said they would be happy to review them, but were reluctant to say they would sign the bills before reading them.
“I’m happy, you know, to consider supporting him and I will probably support him. But in terms of crossing the finish line in this session. I would be concerned if we put all of our eggs in that particular basket, ”Comerford said.
“I thought the call was on the Cherish Act, honestly and other higher priorities. So I was quite ready to talk a lot more in depth about those who might have the highest priorities that I ranked. Didn’t know you meant Rep Higgin [bill]Said Comerford.
According to Gil Kim, CEPA’s Outreach and Outreach Coordinator, one of CEPA’s staff emailed Comerford’s chief of staff.
“In that agenda it said that we were going to talk about the legislation surrounding student debt and its impact on different student communities with marginalized communities,” Kim said. “There must have been a communication problem. We did not say that we were going to talk only about the legislation she tabled and only the legislation tabled by Representative Domb. “
“They operated on affordable higher education platforms. This is only a personal opinion, but it looks like they worked on this platform and mostly because one of the bills we talked about has been at the Statehouse for a few years. It seems strange that they don’t know it or that they were expecting something different, ”Kim said.
Jacey Woods, an education and training coordinator at CEPA, was put off by the reactions of lawmakers when asked about the bills introduced by Representative Higgins.
“I think the role of the voter and the legislator has really been called into question tonight, for example, who needs to educate who and what our jobs are,” Woods said. “I think it’s a little disheartening to have them really almost crazy rather than enjoying being held accountable, when they asked us to do it.
“We’ll let them know in advance, for example, because it’s something they wanted, but I think it’s important for us to keep talking about it and get them into this conversation,” Bhandari said. “And like they said, hold them accountable for the standards they signed on to when they were elected.”
Konah Brownell can be reached at [email protected]