By Andy McKeever
01:21PM / Thursday, December 05, 2013
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State officials want Berkshire residents to weigh in on student loan issues at a hearing on Monday.
State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, chairs a state joint subcommittee of legislators who will be at Berkshire Community College from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Monday to hear concerns over student debt and loan system.
The hearing is the seventh and last one the committee is holding across the state before crafting bills aimed to help college students.
“We tried to hit every different type of college in the state,” Mark said on Thursday. “There have been a lot of themes throughout the hearings… [But] from region to region there has been some local flavor.”
Mark said that so far, they’ve heard about looking for ways to help residents begin saving for college at a young age, loan forgiveness programs, partnerships with businesses, helping credit transfers, financial literacy and issues regarding costs outside of student loans (such as transportation, books or health care). Mark says he wants more ideas, stories and concerns from Berkshire residents to help in both crafting and passing bills and in the budget process.
“The plan is in January to sit down and craft a report,” Mark said, and then the group hopes to file bills that legislative session. “Right now, we’re focusing on the hearings and the next phase is to take these ideas and make them a reality.”
One of the surprises for Mark so far is “how little we do as a state” to promote savings programs like the U-Plan. Another unexpected theme was financial literacy, Mark said, and he feels there are ways to help students understand their financial aid and debt prior to choosing a school or financial aid package.
Other themes, the legislator said, was helping to smooth the transition from a community college to a four-year program with partnerships or just by streamlining the credits so transfer students don’t have to retake course. Mark says he would also like to find ways to increase the number of businesses that will help pay for an employee to take additional courses.
For loan forgiveness programs, Mark said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli has already filed one bill that would create a forgiveness program for social workers. Those types of programs can be increased and for areas where there is a need for certain jobs — such as doctors — the program will help not only the student but also the area, he said.
Additionally, Mark said the state increased funding for public universities in the last budget, which froze tuition and fees. Mark said these public hearings would be a great help in the budget process when he advocates for ways to continue to freeze tuition costs.
Overall, the goal is to find ways to reduce student debt in the face of nearly $1 trillion outstanding nationwide and Massachusetts graduates averaging $27,000 in debt.
Mark said there has been some talk of reducing the overall costs of college but there is little the state can do to control costs at private schools while at the same time the public schools are competing with “the best universities in the world.” Mark said the Higher Education Committee is always working with state schools to reduce overall cost.