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Students tell legislators at Greenfield Community College hearing that help needed to finance education

The Legislature’s Joint Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt visited Greenfield Community College on Monday to hear testimony from students, parents and faculty. The subcommittee, which includes co-chairman and Franklin County delegate Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, is traveling to seven public schools this fall, including a trip earlier Monday to Holyoke Community College.

Mark said that the testimony will help increase the urgency to do something to help Massachusetts students, who legislators say owe an average of $27,000. The subcommittee will likely introduce new bills in the spring and try to get changes into the next year’s budget cycle, said Mark.

GCC and University of Massachusetts Amherst students testified Monday in the Greenfield college dining commons. Some were in their early 20s and others in their mid-50s. Most said they will owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

“What struck me here in Greenfield was ... that student debt doesn’t just happen because of tuition and fees,” said Mark. “It happens because people are trying to pay for all the things they need to do that will allow them to get an education in the first place.”

GCC President Robert Pura said the average GCC student spends nearly $13,500 each semester on expenses, including just over $4,800 for tuition and fees, nearly $1,300 for books and $1,800 for transportation.

And he said those costs do not include health insurance ($1,600 per year) which students are forced to pay when they enroll courses with nine or more credits. Nor do they include child care costs, and GCC is the only community college in the state without a child care center.

The college works with students to reduce their borrowing. Less than one-third of GCC students took a federal loan last year, at an average of $3,800 per student. Still though, the average loan debt for GCC students is $7,700, said Pura.

He thanked legislators for their support in the past state budget, which increased state funding enough for public schools to freeze tuition.

“Our challenge now, even in an economy slow to recover, is to work together to maintain the commitment of this current budget cycle,” Pura told the subcommittee.

Kia Burton McLaughlin, a 27-year-old Greenfield mother of two and president of the GCC Student Senate, said that students interested in social work careers face an uphill battle because of loan debt. She was one of several students who asked legislators for a loan forgiveness program for social workers.

“Sometimes I feel like there is not enough support for what I want to do, and all I want to do is give back and help make this commonwealth better,” she said.

A group of University of Massachusetts Amherst students and faculty came together to the hearing. Max Page, a university architecture professor and member of the Faculty Senate, told legislators that the state’s taxes should increase to make two years of college free for students.

UMass representatives from the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts and the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy pitched other proposals to lower costs through increased taxes — including a system where students pay for school when they can afford it.

Mark said that the subcommittee is still accepting written testimony and that anyone is welcome to stop by his office hours Monday afternoons in the GCC downtown office. He can be reached by email at paul.mark@mahouse.gov.

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