CEPA Advocacy week: Debt crisis forum with local legislators

“By eliminating the cost of not only tuition and fees but also these other costs, we can address the kind of material needs of students on campus.”

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

By Konah Brownell, Collegian Staff

The Center for Education Policy and Advocacy at the University of Massachusetts hosted its student debt crisis forum with Rep. Mindy Domb and Sen. Jo Comerford on Monday, March 1 at 6 p.m.

The forum began CEPA’s advocacy week. The hour-and-a-half-long event began with presentations by CEPA on the student debt crisis in Massachusetts, two bills CEPA supports to address the crisis, followed by remarks by both legislators and a question-and-answer session.

According to Barkha Bhandari, a junior economics major and a presenter at the event, 21 percent of students with student loans drop out of four-year public universities on a national scale. “So this is what we’re talking about in the context of Massachusetts. But this is something that affects so many Americans,” Bhandari said.

“And it also affects the personal ability of students to save towards things like retirement in the future. So not only are you taking out a loan to pursue your education, it’s almost as if you’re taking out a loan to pursue anything for the rest of your life,” Bhandari said.

According to Bhandari, this debt crisis affects certain groups of people disproportionately and it affects people in terms of food insecurity and housing insecurity.

“UMass has had number one dining for a really long time. But our dining plans, for example, are something that not every student can afford, or because of COVID-19, we have seen a really large increase in the number of students who are not able to afford housing,” Bhandari said. “By eliminating the cost of not only tuition and fees but also these other costs, we can address the kind of material needs of students on campus.”

Legislation to address student debt was the major theme of the night. According to Aidan Mazagonwalla, the policy, legislative and research coordinator of CEPA, one of the goals for the forum was to make the legislators more aware of some bills that would help with student debt. During the event, CEPA advocated for two bills, An Act to Guarantee Debt-Free Public Higher Education” (HD.1148) and “An Act to Support Educational Opportunity for All” (HD.1147), both filed by Rep. Natalie Higgins.

According to CEPA, the HD.1148 bill would eliminate tuition and fees at all public campuses in Massachusetts or for Massachusetts residents with a high school degree or GED. Pell Grant-eligible students would also get additional grant money that can cover enrollment, room and board, textbooks, transportation, etc. The HD.1147, described as “an endowment tax bill” would tax private university endowments over $1 billion at 2.5 percent rate, according to CEPA. The money raised through the taxes would be used to subsidize the cost of public higher education, early education and child care for low and middle-class Massachusetts residents.

Both legislators spoke about bills they have filed or are co-sponsoring to address the debt crisis.

“I filed the Cherish Act. And so this would… make tuition more affordable…. we could better fund adjunct professors, which I know is a common concern of students and of unions,” Comerford said. “So the Cherish Act is something that I’m exceedingly proud to file in partnership with Mindy.”

CEPA staff said the Cherish Act is not enough. “It was great that they were here and the specific pieces of legislation that they talked about, the Cherish Act, it’s really important,” Bhandari said. “But we are going to keep doing the job of highlighting the Deputy Free Future Act and the Endowment Tax because those are important.”

During their remarks, the legislators urged students to tell their stories and advocate for bills they want to be passed. “I would say two things. One, don’t let us off the hook. Don’t do it. And we have thousands of choices to make every single day as legislators about a bill,” Domb said.

“Nothing gets done in Beacon Hill….unless people make it get done. Because there’s just too many issues to tackle. And so what gets done is what people demand to get done,” Comerford said.

During the Q&A session, the legislators were asked if they supported the two bills CEPA endorsed to address the student debt crisis. Both legislators said they would be happy to look into them but they were hesitant to say they would sign on to the bills before reading it.

“I’m happy to, you know, consider supporting it and probably will be supporting it. But in terms of getting across the finish line in this session. I would worry if we put all our eggs in that particular basket,” Comerford said.

“I thought the call was about the Cherish Act, honestly and other higher priorities. So I was totally completely ready to talk in much greater depth about those that might have the higher priorities that I filed. I didn’t know you wanted to talk about Rep.  Higgin’s [bill],” Comerford said.

According to Gil Kim, CEPA’s external communication and outreach coordinator, one of the CEPA staff members did email Comerford’s chief of staff of the agenda.

“In that agenda, it said that we’re going to talk about legislation surrounding student debt and then also how that impacts different communities of students with marginalized communities,” Kim said. “There must have been some miscommunication. We didn’t say that we’re going to talk about only the legislation that she filed and only the legislation that Rep. Domb filed.”

“They ran on platforms for affordable higher education. This is just a personal opinion, but it seems like they ran on that platform and especially because one of the bills that we talked about has been in the statehouse for a few years. It seems strange that they don’t know about it, or that they expected something different,” Kim said.

Jacey Woods, an education and training coordinator at CEPA, was disheartened by the reactions of the legislators when they were asked about the bills filed by Rep. Higgins.

“I think the role of the constituent and legislator was really brought into the question tonight of like, who needs to educate who and what our jobs are,” Woods said. “I think it is a little bit disheartening to really have them almost seem mad versus like, being appreciative of being held accountable, when they asked us to do that.”

“We will let them know in advance, for example, because that’s something that they wanted, but I think it’s important for us to keep bringing that up and having them be a part of that conversation,” Bhandari said. “And like they said, holding them accountable to the standards that they signed up when they got elected.”

Konah Brownell can be reached at [email protected]