Lesser, AG tout new student loan borrower bill of rights

  • Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Attorney General Maura Healey speak Thursday about the state’s recently implemented Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights. SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2021 9:25:32 PM

BOSTON — A bill creating a Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights and an ombudsman’s office tasked with protecting those borrowers has gone into effect in Massachusetts.

State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, was an author of that bill, and six years after he first proposed the legislation it passed in January as part of the state Legislature’s $627M economic development bill. On July 1, Arwen Thoman was named the state’s first student loan ombudsman, whose work will be conducted out of the attorney general’s office.

Lesser’s office aired a pre-recorded conversation on Thursday with Attorney General Maura Healey to discuss the impacts the new bill of rights and ombudsman’s office will have.

“It’s going to empower my office with more tools, more resources, to help stand up for student borrowers,” Healey said. “I think this is a really important resource for student loan borrowers in our state.”

The bill of rights provides regulations for the licensing and operation of student loan servicers. It also empowers the new ombudsman to deal with complaints from borrowers, including helping them with repayment options, applying for federal loan forgiveness programs, ending wage and tax refund garnishments for those in default, resolving billing disputes, and obtaining information about their loans.

According to “Project on Student Debt” put together by The Institute for College Access & Success in 2019, 55% of Massachusetts college graduates are in debt from their studies. The organization lists Massachusetts as a “high-debt state,” with the average borrower owing $33,256.

Lesser and Healey noted that contrary to stereotypes of the typical student debtor, borrowers over the age of 60 are a fast-growing group as grandparents and families co-sign loans. And the effects of that debt can be devastating, preventing those with debt from taking the jobs they want, buying homes, getting married, or having kids, Lesser said.

Lesser told the story of one constituent from East Longmeadow — a special education teacher who went into debt getting a master’s degree for that job. He said she was diagnosed with cancer and, with two small children, couldn’t work amid the chemoy and child care.

“She could not even get her loan servicer on the phone … to try to get questions answered about potential forbearance or assistance programs,” Lesser said. Addressing Healey, he added, “At least now, they can call your office.”

During the conversation — part of Lesser’s “Lunchtime Livestream” series he hosts online — Healey spoke about her office’s work cracking down on predatory lenders and for-profit colleges that have saddled students with enormous debts.

“There are so many implications and negative consequences of student loan debt,” Healey said. “We have an economic imperative to deal with this as a country.”

Healey and Lesser reminded listeners that although the federal government paused federal student loan payments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that moratorium is set to expire on Sept. 30. Borrowers impacted by that change should contact the new ombudsman’s office, they said.

The bill of rights doesn’t slow the country’s ballooning student debt, which Healy said has climbed beyond $1.7 trillion in total. Timmy Sullivan, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, or PHENOM, said Massachusetts ranks 10th nationally for average student loan debt.

Sullivan said that PHENOM has advocated for the passage of a student borrower bill of rights for years. He pointed out that state Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster — a lead sponsor of the bill with Lesser — was previously herself executive director of PHENOM.

However, Sullivan said PHENOM and other advocates in the state want to see public higher education become debt-free.

“There’s still this persistent problem, and that is the existence of such a thing called student debt,” Sullivan said. “The best protection is if they never have to take out a loan in order to learn.”

PHENOM and others are backing a bill that would create free public higher education in Massachusetts. That bill has previously been backed by other state lawmakers in the western Massachusetts delegation, including state Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa, Patricia Duffy and Mindy Domb, and state Sens. Jo Comerford, Adam Hinds and Lesser, according to a text of the bill on the Legislature’s website. 

There also is a push for action on the federal level, with some calling for President Joe Biden to use his legal authority to cancel some or all student debt. Biden has resisted those calls, including from Healey and a group of federal lawmakers who have called for him to forgive up to $50,000 for those with student debt.

Healey says she is not in the camp of people calling for the complete elimination of student debt on the federal level, but that she is following Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s lead in calling for $50,000 to be forgiven.

“I think we will be so much better for it,” she said.


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