College education must be affordable to all

 

Berkshire Eagle 02/25/2015, Page A05

COMMENTARY

By Paul Mark

PERU >> The inability to afford a college education should never stand in the way of a promising student’s success.

I remember it like it was yesterday, I had made the decision not to return to college in the fall, and I was wondering where my life would end up. I was a student at UMass, but I realized I couldn’t afford to be there anymore and instead I needed to go out and find a full-time job. I knew my parents would be disappointed, and I was worried about my future, but I hoped I would find a way back to school to finish my education someday.

I was very lucky when I got hired as a lineman at the old Bell Atlantic telephone company and became a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers labor union. This was a goodpaying job with good benefits and a generous tuition assistance program. Just 10 years later I had completed an associate degree in telecommunications, a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s degree in labor relations, a law degree and a doctoral degree in law and policy. I always had the talent and drive necessary to complete these educational programs. But without the financial opportunity I received, I would never have had the chance to fully succeed and complete my studies.

A common story

During the past legislative session I served as the House chair of a subcommittee on Student Loans and debt in the state legislature. I was honored to be appointed and eager to get to work evaluating and reporting on the problem and coming up with practical solutions that can be implemented at the state level.

Our subcommittee held seven public hearings throughout Massachusetts, including one atBerkshire Community College, to make sure that students, parents, professors and administrators from each region had the chance to come to a local hearing and offer their stories, thoughts and ideas for solutions.

The stories we heard were compelling and the suggestions that were offered were wide-ranging and thought-provoking. It reaffirmed what I already knew; I was only one of many students who struggled with finding a way to pay for college.

The subcommittee took what we learned and issued a widely circulated report on the enormity of the problem. This included a series of recommendations that can make college more affordable for all students in Massachusetts.

If the looming student loan and debt crisis is not effectively addressed in the near future, we could find ourselves facing another devastating economic collapse. A new legislative session has begun, and Iam happy to report that a comprehensive higher education bill was filed by the chairs of the Higher Education Committee and Student Loan and Debt Subcommittee.

Key points of this bill include improving financial literacy for students, encouraging savings plans for all families, increasing the availability of loan forgiveness programs, making the transfer of college credits easier and decreasing the time it takes to earn a degree, enhancing grant and scholarship options, incentivizing partnerships with the private sector, improving accountability and keeping costs down, and renewing our commitment as a commonwealth to our public colleges and universities through proper funding levels.

It is also important to mention that some of the recommendations have already been implemented through the state budget process. Massachusetts had languished near the bottom when the states are compared head to head on how much we invest in public higher education.

But that changed significantly during the previous legislative session as major financial investments were made, coupled with new and improved cost-cutting programs, resulting in tuition and fee freezes at public colleges and universities throughout Massachusetts. We have also successfully increased funding for grant and scholarship programs, partnerships and improved collaboration throughout the public system and between public and private colleges, and increased accountability and scrutiny of for-profit colleges.

A higher priority

However, there is so much more work that needs to be done in order to keep our students out of the abyss of student debt and able to efficiently fund their higher education. Massachusetts is well-establishedas a leader in so many areas because we have a world class education system that attracts and retains the best students and workforce in the world. If we want to continue to be a world leader, if we want to continue to eliminate poverty, discrimination and social inequity, and if we want to continue to have a stable, functional democracy, then as a commonwealth we need to reprioritize public higher education.

I am ready to continue fighting so that everybody has the same opportunity for success that I have had. No student should ever have to miss out on their dreams or opportunities for a better life because a college education is unaffordable.

Paul Mark is a Democratic state representative for the Second Berkshire District, which consists of 16 communities in Berkshire and Franklin counties, and is vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.