State senator promotes affordable higher education

By Kathrine Esten

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

State Senator Jamie Eldridge participated in a public forum on his new bill, S. 681, entitled “An Act Promoting Access to Debt-Free Public Higher Education,” along with several students and faculty.

S.681 proposes that the Commonwealth will “pay the tuition and mandatory curriculum fees or course fees” not covered by state and federal grants, or other existing financial aid systems. Eligible students must be in-state residents who have graduated from a high school in the Commonwealth, and have an annual family income of $200,000 or less.

If a family’s income is less than the median income of state, the students are also required to apply for any federal and state grants available to them. To remain eligible, students must take a minimum per-semester course load of 15 credits, and maintain a grade point average of at least 2.7.

“Just as it’s important for political leaders to put out bold plans, we really need students to demand leaders follow through on that promise,” Eldridge said.

These requirements, according to Eldridge, would give 90 percent of Massachusetts residents access to a debt free college education. Undocumented immigrants residing in the Commonwealth would also be eligible under the plan.

Eldridge explained he was inspired by personal testimony from constituents in his district struggling with higher education debt, as well as the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

“If we’re going to build the political momentum, we need to be bolder,” Eldridge continued.

Dan Clawson, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, argued in support of the plan, especially in the manner it was funded.

Depending on the passage of the Fair Share Amendment in 2018, the Commonwealth could generate a projected $2 billion per year designated for education and transportation. It would specifically tax 4 percent on incomes over one million dollars. Eldridge’s bill proposes that approximately a third of these funds would support debt free higher education.

“If you get a paycheck every week, take a look at your paycheck. If you’re earning $19,230 a week or less, then, it will not raise your taxes,” Clawson explained.

Kevin Young, an associate professor in history at UMass, pointed to legislation that has burdened lower-income families pursuing higher education, referring to it as a bipartisan “class war.” While he supported the concept of debt free education, Young said that they were “great ideas,” but that we, as a society, needed to “consider the system.”

Aditi Joglekar, a sophomore political science major, posed a question to Senator Eldridge, asking whether making college free for students would “devalue” degrees.

Eldridge responded that admissions standards and rates would likely not change, and degrees would remain highly valued. After the forum, Joglekar shared her support for the bill.

“I really hope this bill starts a dialogue,” Joglekar said. “Higher education is such an important issue.”

When asked about whether he would pursue compromise with Republicans, such as Governor Charlie Baker, Eldridge said he was not looking to work across the aisle. He went on to cite the supermajority of Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature as reasoning for his disinterest in compromise.

“I have no doubt Governor Baker will oppose this,” Eldridge responded. “Which is why we’ll defeat him next year.”

State Senator Jamie Eldridge has served as State Senator for the Middlesex and Worcester district since January 2009. Previously, Senator Eldridge served as State Representative for the 37th Middlesex district, after being elected the only Clean Elections candidate to public office in Massachusetts history in November 2002.

UMass Democrats President Sonia Guglani, a junior finance and economics major, added that she was glad to live in a state with a “progressive agenda,” where the government supports students. In terms of compromise, Guglani suggested requiring students to complete community service, in exchange for funds. “This way it benefits the community in many ways,” Guglani said.

The event was organized by Ilina Shah, a sophomore statistics and political science major, with support from Eldridge’s office, the UMass Democrats, the Student Government Association and the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy.

Shah said she wants to continue working with UMass Democrats and CEPA to continue this dialogue. As a current member of the SGA, she has an avenue to continue advocating for affordable public education.

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected]