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Greenfield Community College

Rep. Mark: Higher ed. costs, student debt must be curbed

State Rep. Paul Mark visited Greenfield Community College in October 2012 to talk about his job and the importance of voting. In 2013, he was named co-chairman of a legislative subcommittee charged with tackling rising higher education costs and student loan debt. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

State Rep. Paul Mark visited Greenfield Community College in October 2012 to talk about his job and the importance of voting. In 2013, he was named co-chairman of a legislative subcommittee charged with tackling rising higher education costs and student loan debt. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

GREENFIELD — A legislative committee led by a local lawmaker said this week that the state can and should act soon to help alleviate rising college costs and student debt.

“Fewer people are going to start going to college ... (and) you also can’t shed this debt,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who co-chaired the Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt.

“If all of a sudden almost 20 percent of the population can’t get a mortgage, that’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the economy,” he said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

In a report issued this week, the subcommittee recommended that the state increase its funding and financial aid for public education.

The state should also work to improve its savings plan, add loan forgiveness programs and teach financial literacy to students and parents, said the subcommittee. Mark hopes that the report will lead legislators to act on bills that already exist or sponsor new ones based on the recommendations.

Community college students have seen a 71 percent increase in fees over the past 10 years and their debt is $1,400 higher than it was three years ago, according to the report. Those numbers are even higher for UMass students, who have seen a 110 percent increase in fees over the past decade, and face an average debt of nearly $27,000.

More state funding should come with increased financial oversight, said the subcommittee.

And increases could also be given to the MassGrant scholarship program, the subcommittee said. It covered 80 percent of tuition and fees at public colleges 25 years ago, but now pays for about 9 percent of costs, with an average student scholarship of $657.

This year’s House Ways and Means budget funds the program with $91.6 million, and Mark has filed an amendment that would increase that total by an additional $5 million.

More work needs to be done to teach students and parents financial literacy, said the subcommittee. It recommended that colleges provide information to students, clearly outlining all financial options and describing in detail the types and exact amounts of financial aid being given.

Another way to save students money is by decreasing the amount of time it takes to earn a degree, said the report.

The subcommittee urged the state to increase its funding of dual enrollment programs — like the one Greenfield Community College operates with local high school students, who take college-level courses for credit before their high school graduation. The state could also set up transfer agreements between public community colleges and private universities and explore online and hybrid course options.

Mark and the other subcommittee members support loan forgiveness programs that encourage students to go into specific fields. One bill has already been filed to forgive loans of students who want to become licensed social workers in Massachusetts.

The state could also provide incentives, like loan forgiveness or tax credits, to encourage more partnerships between private businesses and colleges — similar to the advanced manufacturing training program that exists in Franklin County.

The state could also provide incentives for people to put money into a college savings plan, by either offering tax credits or agreeing to match their contributions.

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