Although the colleges and universities in Massachusetts are critical to the state’s economy, the rising level of student debt could temper our economic growth. Independent colleges and universities in the Commonwealth are acutely aware of their responsibility to help control debt levels and, last year, awarded nearly $600 million in scholarship aid to Massachusetts residents. However, we can do more to leverage that investment through federal and state partnerships. We need to work together to create a cradle-to-career approach to financing higher education by providing an incentive to increase college savings from birth, increasing state support for need-based financial aid, and lowering student loan interest rates. We can help college students and grauates refinance debt and stimulate the economy.
First, on the state level, we must provide families with an important incentive to start saving for college as soon as their first child is born. State Senator Eileen Donoghue is championing a proposal to give Massachusetts families what is already offered in more than 30 states — an income tax deduction for contributions made to qualified college savings plans. Donoghue recently completed a far-reaching examination of the student debt issue as co-chair of the Sub-Committee on Student Loans & Debt, which concluded that it was “incumbent on the Commonwealth to help students and families pay for college themselves,” and recommended offering a tax deduction for contributions— up to $5,000 — made to such plans. Incentivizing college savings early will put Massachusetts families on the right path well before arriving on campus.
Second, the state must reinvest meaningfully in need-based financial aid programs. By committing to a multi-year plan to reinvest in need-based scholarship programs, Massachusetts would enable more deserving students, who possess the talent but not the financial resources, to attend the Massachusetts college which best match their educational interests and learning style. Increasing the average award will surely entice Massachusetts students exploring colleges outside the Commonwealth to reconsider and attend one of our outstanding colleges. In 2010, over 18,000 high school graduates left Massachusetts in part, some argue, because our state financial aid program isn’t robust enough to keep them here. We need to stop this brain drain.
Third, we can help students and recent grads better manage student debt. At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. John Tierney have again demonstrated their commitment to ensuring access and affordability by introducing legislation to allow students and graduates with existing student loan debt to refinance at lower interest rates. This commonsense approach would provide instant relief to borrowers struggling to make payments on high-interest loans as they are beginning their careers. Their plan would allow these recent grads to reinvest those savings — to purchase a car, save for a home, start a family — and positively impact all segments of the economy.
For the more than 500,000 students attending college in the Commonwealth and the more than 1.4 million Massachusetts residents under age 18, we must work together to provide affordable access to college without burdening graduates with unmanageable debt. Working together, through public/private partnerships involving the federal government, state government, colleges and universities, and families, we can take steps to ensure a new pathway to higher education, one that is truly cradle to career.
Richard Doherty is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.