We need debt-free college in MA

Higher education is contributing to income inequality

SPRING IS UPON US – and across Massachusetts, tens of thousands of students are preparing to graduate and collect their diplomas. In too many cases, the excitement of a new chapter is burdened by the anxiety of student loan debt.

In Boston alone, the average student loan recipient carries over $43,000 in debt. That’s 44 percent above the national average. Nationwide, total student loan debt has topped $1.2 trillion.

We know that advanced degrees are increasingly necessary; the earnings gap between young adults with and without a bachelor’s degree is just one example of its necessity. And yet, the Federal Reserve Bank just this week commented that the necessity of education coupled with the tremendous cost of education is contributing to Boston’s income inequality.

The truth is, there are too many barriers to success here in Massachusetts. In February, Massachusetts was named among the worst states for income inequality. Forty-four other states – from Utah to Arkansas to our neighbors in New Hampshire – perform better in measurements of opportunity and have worked harder to give all residents a fair shot. This fair shot is not just impacting individuals, as 75 percent of business leaders are struggling to fill positions, an increase since 2013.

If business leaders and data alike agree that we can do better about breaking down barriers to higher education, why aren’t we getting to work? Not only are we failing to invest in higher education, but we’re actually building taller barriers. From 2002 to 2013, tuition and fees to attend public colleges and universities throughout the state more than doubled.

Last week, two college students testified at a Beacon Hill hearing on higher education funding, urging the Legislature to provide full funding for the state’s 29 public colleges and universities in order to stop tuition and fee increases.

For Andrew Lawson, the barriers to education are all too real. In order to help support his single mother, he balances working full-time to pay bills and rent and attending North Shore Community College full-time. This means he wakes up at 7 a.m., gets home at 11 p.m., and works on schoolwork well into the night. Despite his commitment to working and learning, he still struggles financially. He testified that he often wonders why it’s so difficult to do something that has always been expected of him. If getting a college degree is an assumption, why is it so taxing?

Nat Roosa, a student at University of Massachusetts, comes from a different background than Andrew – but shares in the taxing experience of paying for college. She testified that student loan debt has changed her family. Her parents’ marriage is not a healthy one, but divorce is not financially feasible – and so they stay together, bound by student loan debt.

No one would fault Nat or Andrew for feeling hopeless. But, in fact, they haven’t given up – and instead, are deeply committed to fighting for higher education funding. They’re joined by thousands of college students across the Commonwealth who have signed onto the Fair Shot agenda and reached out to their local legislators in order to encourage debt-free college here in Massachusetts.

Meet the Author

Matt Patton

Executive director, Fair Shot
It’s a small step towards closing in on Massachusetts’ income inequality – and it’s a big step for students like Andrew, Nat, and the tens of thousands of students who deserve a fair shot at higher education in Massachusetts.

Matt Patton is the executive director of Fair Shot, a Boston-based nonprofit committed to educating and mobilizing people to work together to reverse the growing gap in income and wealth in Massachusetts and across the country.