Recently, I was invited to speak to the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, which was meeting at UMass Lowell to hear testimony about the cost of college and student debt. Like a lot of states, Massachusetts is considering what kinds of policies, legislation, and funding strategies might help students and their families better afford college.
In my remarks, I shared my own story. I told them that back in the mid-1980s, I was a pretty smart high school kid with limited financial resources, who was able to attend my local community college thanks to a $150 scholarship from a local bank.
Because of scholarships and part-time jobs, I didn’t have to take out a student loan until I hit grad school, and I was able to pay it off a few years after I started working.
There is no doubt, times have changed.
Tuition and fees at most community colleges in the country now cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a year, and because the cost of everything else has also climbed, it has become increasingly difficult for students to do what I did and work their way through college, paying as they go.
About two-thirds of students graduating from American colleges and universities today have accumulated some amount of debt. The recent average, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) Project on Student Debt, is $26,600, and about one in 10 graduates racks up more than $40,000.
In my testimony, I reminded the committee that not all colleges and universities are alike, and whatever policies, legislation, and funding strategies a state like Massachusetts comes up with to ensure colleges are fair and affordable should recognize this.
For example, we know that, as measured by family income and financial aid eligibility, Northern Essex Community College has one of the largest populations of low-income students in the state. Nearly 75 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid, and the college itself contributes nearly $500,000 each year in direct assistance.