By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
BOSTON -- As student loan debt tops $1 trillion nationally, state lawmakers are recommending ways to ease the burden on Massachusetts college students.
Approximately 66 percent of Massachusetts students take out loans to pay for college, and the state ranks 12th in the nation for the number of students carrying debt.
A Joint Committee on Higher Education subcommittee approved a report Tuesday with nine recommendations to make higher education more affordable for Massachusetts students.
The recommendations were developed after lawmakers held seven public hearings at public and private colleges and universities around the state. The report now heads to the full joint committee, which could decide to develop legislation around the recommendations, according to Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), who co-chaired the subcommittee along with Rep. Paul Mark (D-Peru).
Mark said the report is "supposed to spur other action."
Driven by the high cost of college and decreased federal and state support, student loan debt is now the second largest form of household debt behind home mortgages, according to the report. In the past three years, the amount of student loan debt for the state's public colleges and universities has risen 27 percent.
During the hearings, lawmakers were surprised to learn that many students lack a basic understanding of finances and loans.
Rep. Angelo D'Emilia (R-Bridgewater) said he was astounded to hear students speak about taking out loans to pay for school, totally unaware they were responsible for paying the loans back once they graduated.
Another recommendation is to try to decrease the time it takes for students to earn a degree by funding and promoting dual enrollment programs, where students take college level courses for credit while they still attend high school; and making advanced placement (AP) course credits equally valuable for public and private colleges.
Rep. Denise Provost, another member of the subcommittee, questioned how lawmakers could persuade private colleges to accept and give credit for all AP courses offered at public high schools. Donoghue said the Legislature could have influence with public colleges and universities.
Other recommendations from the report include:
* Increasing and reforming some state aid, including the need-based MassGrant scholarship program and reforming the John & Abigail Adams Scholarship.
* Regulating for-profit schools by enforcing Attorney General Martha Coakley's regulations as well as limiting state-baSed funds used by for-profits schools to classroom instruction.
* Creating incentives to save by reforming the Massachusetts 529 College Savings Plan.
* Advancing loan forgiveness programs.
* Developing public-private partnerships designed to match up educational advancement with skilled employment opportunities.
* Supporting state partnerships with federal officials.