Student Activists Want Free Ride To College on Taxpayers’ Dime

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By Katie Lannan

Students, educators and others who say the cost of a college education has ballooned out of control took their calls for relief to the State House on Thursday and said that if lawmakers don’t act, they’re prepared to ask voters to deliver results instead.

Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (or PHENOM), encouraged the hundreds who attended an advocacy day his organization hosted to “demand action” on legislation they support.

“If we don’t see action on our debt-free future bill, are we willing to say that we’re going to go to the ballot in 2020 and take the choice away from this building and put it in front of the voters of this commonwealth?” Bears said, to cheers from the crowd. “Eighty-two percent of the people of this commonwealth support debt-free public college, an overwhelming majority. We know that we’ll make the right call if we don’t see action from this building.”

PHENOM supports a bill filed by state Representative Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster), a former director of the organization, and state Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), that would establish it as “the policy of the commonwealth to guarantee free public higher education as a right for all residents.”

The bill (H. 1221, S. 744), known as the Debt-Free Future Act, calls for the creation of “a grant program to pay the equivalent of tuition and mandatory fees to an eligible student at any Massachusetts public college or university, or certificate, vocational, or training program at a public institution, up to the equivalent of four years of public college or university.”

Students would be eligible for the grant if they are Massachusetts residents who hold a high school diploma or an equivalent, are enrolled full-time or part-time at a public college, university or another public certificate, vocational or adult education program, and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.

After hearing from students and advocates, the approximately 550 attendees marched through the State House, chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, student debt has got to go,” then dispersed for meetings with lawmakers.

State Representative Jeffrey Roy (D-Franklin), the new House chairman of the Higher Education Committee, told the group that he and many of his colleagues have a “deep understanding of the issues you face.”

“Now, I will tell you that my first year of college, we were daunted by the fact that tuition and room and board was $2,750,” said Roy, who graduated Bates College in 1983. “Would you like us to return to those days?”

The Franklin Democrat said his mother, who had dropped out of high school, “instilled in me that the American Dream is still alive, and that if you got yourself an education, that you could improve your lot in life, and you could improve the lives of many others.”

Roy said lawmakers would “try and do our best to make affordable public higher education for each and every one of you.”