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Panel tackles college affordability

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst students listen to a panel including state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, D-Amherst, discuss student debt at the UMass Amherst campus on Wednesday. Recorder Photo by M.J. Tidwell



For the Recorder
Thursday, April 19, 2018

AMHERST — Nearly a quarter of students at the University of Massachusetts say they’ve skipped meals because they can’t afford them.

Now, some UMass students are preparing to put themselves at the forefront of discussions around the cost of education and the burden of student debt in part to address that statistic, which is based on a 2015 Student Life survey.

In a meeting on campus Wednesday night, students listened to Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, I-Amherst, and other panelists speak on ways they’re working to combat the high cost of education.

Hosted by the student-run, student-driven advocacy group MassPIRG, which is dedicated to fighting special interests, the meeting was focused on one specific campaign: students asking for what is their due.

Jonathan Lee, coordinator of the MassPIRG campaign to address student debt, said more than two-thirds of college students graduate with federal student loan debt, with an average of $23,000.

After Timmy Sullivan, president of the Student Government Association, revealed the statistic on food insecurity on campus, he outlined the ways his administration hopes to fight the high cost of education, including supporting legislation cited by other members of the panel.

“Whatever piece of legislation it is, students need to be at the forefront,” Sullivan said. “It’s important to get students involved in the conversation about student debt so we can come up with proactive solutions.”

Sullivan’s calls to action included advocating for legislation that increases access to affordable education, positioning students as a voting bloc and working to create on-campus voting.

He also said he hopes to increase the SGA’s role in governing additional costs like textbooks and meals, and advocated for creating a student lobby day at the Statehouse.

Vice President Nathalie Amazan said the cost of higher education is a key focus of her and Sullivan’s administration.

Amazan said that like access to food, shelter and health care, access to affordable higher education is a necessity and should be a right.

“My parents are Haitian immigrants who came here to give a better life to me and my siblings,” Amazan said. “Use the privilege you have to be here attending UMass to help others who can’t.”

Julia Ross, a sophomore who attended the event, said she was alarmed to hear the statistic about food insecurity on campus, but said she was interested to hear about the efforts of the panelists to address specific pieces of the issue.

“It’s about a lot more than just student loans,” Ross said.

On the panel, Rosenberg compared the cost of college now to when he was a student at UMass and spoke about the Senate’s Millennial Outreach Initiative, which gathers input on issues important to millennials, before getting to what he called “the big enchilada.”

Rosenberg said nothing will bring more relief to students concerned about the cost of college than the state’s “Fair Share Amendment,” a proposed constitutional amendment that would add a 4 percent surcharge tax on anyone who makes an income of over a million dollars. Supporters of the amendment say the estimated $2 billion in annual projected revenues would be dedicated to public education and transportation infrastructure.

This, Rosenberg said, would be hugely beneficial to lowering the cost of college, though he warned that competition for the money would be fierce if the amendment is passed.

Goldstein-Rose spoke about the importance of effectively communicating to create change, and touched on the student loan “bill of rights” recently passed by the Senate, which is aimed at reducing predatory lending practices in the commonwealth.

Jeremy Smith, digital products manager at DuBois Library, spoke about open education at UMass to combat the high added costs of textbooks.

UMass professor and candidate for vice president of the Massachusetts Teaching Association Max Page, said that winning the “Fair Share Amendment” is the most important piece in pushing for affordable education and an opportunity like it to increase education funding may only come once in a generation.

After the panel discussion, sophomore Meg Palmer said she was glad she came to hear from the panelists and to learn more about the issue of student debt.

“It’s uplifting that each person had their own plan for how to fix this,” Palmer said.