Rep. Mark files ed. bill

 

Greenfield Recorder 02/11/2015, Page A01

Addresses higher learning, student debt

By KATHLEEN McKIERNAN

Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — State Rep. Paul Mark has filed a comprehensive higher education bill designed to tackle student debt, lower costs and increase funding to the state’s colleges and universities.

With 34 sections addressing different aspects of higher education costs, the bill includes financial literacy programs for students, promotes savings plans and loan forgiveness programs, improves grant and scholarship opportunities and increases the opportunity for high school students to take college courses for credit and cuts down on the time it takes to finish a degree.

“It’s important as a commonwealth that we invest in higher education,” said the Democrat from Peru, who represents many Franklin County towns on Beacon Hill.

“If you look around, people don’t come here for the weather. People come here because we have the finest colleges and universities in the world. It attracts job opportunities and people to come to the state and stay here.”

The massive bill follows a series of public hearings across the state held last summer by the Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, on which Mark served as House chair.

The bill includes the findings and recommendations spelled out in the report of that subcommittee. With more than 50 co-sponsors, the higher education bill is already garnering much attention.

Mark expects portions, but not all, of the bill to get passed.

“We crafted this bill over the last couple of months,” Mark said. “Our intention was to get everything out there and let’s see what gets passed. It’s getting the conversation going.”

With the potential to become the next economic crisis, Mark expects the state would be hard hit if the student loan bubble burst. This bill would be a first attempt at preventing that burden and helping students avoid debt.

The University of Massachusetts, the state universities and the community colleges can expect to get boosts in state aid and bonds for capital projects.

It would provide the University of Massachusetts, the state universities and the community colleges a boost of $95 million each year for the next five years and calls on the schools to freeze tuition and mandatory fee increases in exchange for the funding.

A funding formula to determine how much publicmoney the state universities should receive would also be created.

The formula would be based on enrollment and the cost of education and the number of students who complete their degrees.

It would also authorize $4.2 billion in state bonds for capital improvements and maintenance projects at the public universities and colleges.

Higher education institutions wouldn’t receive a blank check, however, Mark said. Increases in funding would be tied to cost savings and finding efficiencies.

The legislation also encourages partnerships between private businesses and higher education institutions.

It would establish a pilot program, developed by the state board of higher education, to promote partnerships for student employment between graduates of state public and private colleges and the state’s business community.

It would involve three public and two private education institutions and five businesses in the state.

Part of the arrangement would be that the business would receive a 20 percent state income tax credit on the first $5,000 of tuition and fees paid by the business. Students would then agree to work in the state for the business. The program would only allow for 100 students to start. The legislation encourages prepaid tuition or college savings plans, known as a 529 plan. Individuals and families would become eligible for tax credits worth $1,250 for a single individual or $2,500 for a married couple for contributing to a savings plan.

It would also create a grant pilot program for low-income individuals and families making 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The program, limited to 250 students, would create prepaid tuition program or college savings accounts. The amount a student contributes to the savings account would be matched by the state as long as the individuals pays at least $150 toward the savings in one year.

The legislation requires the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop standards for personal financial literacy for grades kindergarten through 12th grade.

It would also require all post secondary schools to offer admitted students financial aid information.

Several education grant programs would see a funding boost.

An additional $4,250,000 would be added to the Dual Enrollment Program, bringing the program up to $5 million, for use until June 30, 2016. It would enable high school students to take college courses at the state’s public higher education institutions while still enrolled in high school to help students get a head start on college.

Another $1.5 million would be added to the Community Colleges Workforce Incentive Grant Program for credit for vocational courses. Students at the public universities and colleges who are enrolled in training programs for in-demand professions would see an additional $1.5 million in grant and scholarship opportunities.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268On Twitter, follow @RecorderKatMcK