Berkshire Eagle 05/04/2014, Page B01
By Jenn Smith
Berkshire Eagle Staff
DALTON — State lawmakers this month are expected to roll out recommendations aimed at easing the burden of student loan debt.
After a round of statewide public hearings last fall, the seven- member Student Loan and Debt committee last month released a 30- page report on their findings. It has nine areas to monitor and recommendations to lower student debt in Massachusetts, according to state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who briefed The Eagle on the committee’s work.
“There is no magic bullet to solving the student loan and debt crisis,” the report stated. It “is hopeful that this report will shed new light on how serious the problem is and that the recommendations will bring new opportunities for combating this roadblock to economic prosperity.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported last summer that the amount of student loans guaranteed or held by the federal government has crossed over the $1 trillion mark. The bureau said student loan debt grew by 20 percent between the end of 2011 and May 2013. By comparison, credit card debt grew just 2 percent.
“Student loans now comprise the second-largest form of consumer debt behind home mortgages,” the bureau reported.
Mark said that the committee will present its findings this month to the Joint Committee on Higher Education, which includes Sen. Benjamin Downing, D- Pittsfield, and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, DLenox. Mark is co-vice chairman of that committee.
The statewide hearings and the report helped the committee gain a better understanding of what causes student loan debt and find some potential ways to proactively decrease the burden.
For example, while average tuition costs for state public higher education institutions have remained “relatively stable,” fees assessed to students have nearly doubled, while less aid has been made available by the state, according to the report’s findings.
Whether attending a fouryear public or private college or university, 66 percent of Massachusetts students take out loans to pay for college and they carry an average debt of $ 28,460, according to data from The Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access & Success.
According to the state student loan and debt report, Massachusetts ranks No. 12 in the nation for the number of students carrying debt. State spending on higher education declined 31 percent between fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2013, and Massachusetts ranks 46 among the 48 states that offer college students need- based aid programs.
In terms of addressing student loans, debt and financial literacy, Mark said that Berkshire County is “leaps and bounds ahead of other areas of the state,” but more can be done to prepare students and families to manage college costs.
Mark, for example, cited the work of the Berkshire Compact for Education, a public and private collaborative working to address educational success and college and career readiness. The Compact published a brochure on college savings plans, promoted countywide college financial aid nights, and supported pilots financial literacy programs in schools.
Mark gave Berkshire Compact members an overview of the student loan and debt report and said the “response was positive” to the recommendations.
He said other report recommendations, including student loan forgiveness for degreeholders entering career fields in which there is both great need and lack of financial incentive — like social workers and other health care professionals — could “be huge for a place like Berkshire County.”