By Katie Lannan | State House News Service | Mar 6, 2019
BOSTON — Over the last five years, Rep. Natalie Higgins, 30, has paid off more on the mortgage for her Leominster home than she has toward the $130,000 in student debt she accumulated attending law school.
Rep. Adrian Madaro, also 30, said now that he and his wife have both graduated from law school and will be paying off two sets of student loans, they have to make “very hard decisions” about when to start a family, or start renovations on their home.
As they called for the state to adopt new protections for student borrowers, lawmakers on Wednesday shared both their own anecdotal experiences and statistics quantifying the economic impacts of student loan debt.
There are 855,000 student loan borrowers who owe a combined $33.3 billion across Massachusetts, according to numbers presented by Sen. Eric Lesser, the sponsor of a bill that would create a student loan ombudsman, require licensing of student loan servicers and authorize state officials to investigate abusive practices by loan servicers. Almost 95,000 Massachusetts borrowers are delinquent on their student loans.
Seth Frotman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Student Borrowers Protection Center, said 8.5 million federal student loan recipients nationally are in default. He said more than 1 million borrowers defaulted last year, for what he said was one default every 28 seconds.
Frotman said over the last five years in Massachusetts, there has been a 40 percent increase in seniors owing student debt.
“This isn’t just a young person problem. This isn’t just about avocado toast,” he said.
Rep. Paul Donato, 77, also gave voice to idea that the college debt crisis crosses generation lines.
“I have three grandchildren who are in college, and they rely on their parents, and sometimes their parents rely on their parents, so guess who is burdened?” said Donato, the House’s second assistant majority leader. “I think it’s important that we take a position to look at what student loans are doing.”
Six senators and seven representatives are signed on to Lesser’s bill (S 160) as cosponsors. Along with Higgins, Madaro and Donato, several other lawmakers joined supporters for the press conference, including Reps. Mindy Domb, Maria Robinson, Andy Vargas, Lindsay Sabadosa, Tami Gouveia, and Carlos Gonzalez, and Sens. Becca Rausch, Adam Hinds, Anne Gobi, Julian Cyr and Cindy Friedman.
When MASSPIRG legislative director Deirdre Cummings said she thinks this is the year “that we will see real meaningful consumer protections” for student loan borrowers, Gobi, the Senate chair of the Higher Education Committee, told her she agreed.
Gobi said the second happiest day of her life, after her wedding, was when she paid off her student loans.
A version of Lesser’s bill passed the Senate unanimously last April, but House leaders never brought it to the floor for a vote.
Asked if he thinks anything has changed on the issue since last session, Lesser pointed to a “lack of enforcement” at the federal level and to the growing debt load as time passses. According to the Student Borrower Protection Center, student debt in Massachusetts increased by $1 billion in the last year.
“We’ve also done quite a lot of work here at the State House to get the issue out onto people’s radar,” Lesser said. “I think one of the challenges we’ve faced, frankly, is there was a belief with student loans for a long time that by scooping ice cream in the summer or by babysitting or working part-time, you’d be able to pay for college. That’s how my parents paid for college, but the reality of it is, the combination of a weak job market for young people coming out of the recession, sky-high increases in tuition at both private, but also at public universities, and the continued erosion of the protections on the federal level have made this an issue that cannot be ignored anymore.”
Madaro said he sees more momentum behind tackling student debt now than in years past, pointing to the number of legislators who turned out for the event and the support of groups like the Student Borrower Protection Center, MASSPIRG, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts and the Hildreth Institute.
Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, said he hopes there’s an appetite in the House to take up the bill this session, “especially with the new influx of other millennial legislators” elected last year.
“There’s no one in our age bracket who isn’t dealing with this in some form or another,” he said.