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Debt-free education bill gaining widespread support

Avery Bleichfeld
Debt-free education bill gaining widespread support
The education bill in the state legislature has received the backing of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. BANNER PHOTO

An education bill in the state legislature that supporters say would decrease the college debt burden on Massachusetts students is drawing widespread support for its promise to help erase a major financial barrier that often derails low-income students.

The measure received the backing of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which launched an ad campaign highlighting the bill’s benefits. But the organization representing community colleges said that while it supports most aspects of the bill, the measure would not help all students.

“The idea and concept of debt- free college is easy to get behind … but that said, I think it’s important to know the devil is in the details,” said Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges.

The CHERISH Act omnibus legislation, which was also previously filed in the last two legislative sessions, would tackle a variety of issues related to publicly funded higher education in the state, including forming a system for debt-free college for students, providing better supports support  for adjunct faculty, supporting maintenance of campus buildings and creating greener infrastructure at state schools and community colleges.

The bill comes at a time when reports have shown a growing student loan crisis that is quashing the aspirations of many low-income students and families and leaving them unable to achieve their long-term goals.   

“[College debt] prevents people from purchasing their first house or starting a family,” said Franklin Ortiz, an academic advisor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “We’re at a point right now that we can actually make a dent in this crisis, where the CHERISH Act would provide the necessary funding for the students to not have to feel like they have to rely on loans to help them manage to get by during their time in school, to feel like they know they can get a good quality education and not feel like they’re going to be in debt for the next 20 or 30 years.”

At a hearing in September, Rep. Sean Garballey, a lead sponsor of the bill in the House, said it will have widespread impacts.

“The CHERISH Act is about investing in students in our knowledge-driven economy and in the future of our Commonwealth,” said Garballey, who represents the 23rd Middlesex District. “Our goals are a more educated workforce, increased earnings and investing in the economic strength of our Commonwealth, resulting in a more competitive Commonwealth and an affordable state.”

The debt-free college component of the bill is a frequently promoted banner portion of the legislation. At the hearing, Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said it’s key to let students attend college — especially at well-funded and supported institutions — without incurring massive amounts of student debt.

“Let’s make sure that you pass a program that truly accomplishes what we want, which is to give everyone the chance to go to college and graduate without the burden of debt,” Page said. “There is no racial or economic justice in the Commonwealth without access to high-quality public higher education.”

The legislation received additional support last month when the teacher’s union, which represents faculty and staff at public schools and higher education institutions in Massachusetts, launched its ad campaign featuring educators talking about what they see as the need for the bill.

Ortiz, one of the educators featured, said his experience as a student pushed him to participate.

“I just remember the anxiety of going into every single semester, not knowing will I have enough to pay for books, things of that nature,” he said. “We’re hoping…the students won’t have to feel that same way when they’re just trying to pursue a good, quality education.”

But representatives of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges said the bill’s system for debt-free college fails to equitably support students who opt into that system.

Mackinnon, the group’s executive director, said the current structure of the bill makes students who opt for a less expensive community college over a more expensive state school pay proportionally more tuition.

As currently written, the CHERISH Act uses the expected family contribution, calculated under a federal formula related to student aid, to determine what a student is expected to pay. A low-income student expected to contribute $3,500 would pay that same sum if they choose to attend Bunker Hill Community College, where yearly tuition and fees is about $7,300, or if they opt to go to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where tuition and fees for a year can reach $33,000.

“If you had two cars in front of you and one was a base model Toyota Corolla and the other was a Mercedes, both of them cost $3,500 and taxpayers are going to pick up the difference between the $3,500 and the remaining amounts, logically, people are going to want to choose the Mercedes,” Mackinnon said. “Is that really fair if the person chose Toyota because they thought it was a more economical choice or better on gas mileage, or a better fit for them?”

Instead, he said his association would like to see a free community college system in the state.

The association’s position, he said, is not about making students who choose four-year institutions incur more debt, but rather to try to get the details right when the concept of debt-free college is so easy to get behind.

“If there’s a model that includes universally-free community college and debt-free college for four-year institutions and that’s the final version of this bill, I think that would be something that community colleges would be happy to get behind,” Mackinnon said. “It’s just that in its current formation as drafted, we have major concerns.”

Mackinnon also said that, otherwise, his association is in support of the rest of the legislation.

“There are a lot of things in the CHERISH Act that our community colleges are very supportive of,” he said. “That includes equity for adjuncts and benefits for adjuncts. That includes green buildings. There are a lot of things in the bill that we think are really good as part of an omnibus piece of legislation that supports higher education.”

Advocates for the bill said last year’s passage of the Fair Share Amendment, which created an additional tax on income above $1 million. The money collected through the tax — which is estimated to bring in $1.5 million in the fiscal year according to reporting by WBUR — is set aside for infrastructure and education.

“We have a historic opportunity with the passage of the Fair Share Amendment that occurred last November to reinvest in public higher-education to ensure that every student here in the Commonwealth — regardless of age — is not saddled with crippling debt,” said state Sen. Jacob Oliveira at the September hearing.

Already, the Legislature has started using funds from the amendment to provide financial aid to students at public colleges and to start MassReconnect, a program that covers community college tuition costs for Massachusetts residents above age 25.

“You’ve all started spending that money well, and we thank you for that,” said Page. “It’s got to be just the beginning.”