To the editor:
More than 40 million Americans collectively owe $1.5 trillion of student debt. This burden will defer — or eliminate — the ability of millions of people to buy cars, to buy homes, and to move into a financially stable adult life. It is overwhelming, crippling and permanent. With few exceptions, student debt is never forgiven — even in bankruptcy. In spite of the millions of dollars awarded in scholarships, students with loans graduate on average with about $30,000 in student debt, and many have $50,000, $75,000 or more. Something has to be done to help these ambitious, but under-resourced people.
While this American tragedy is well documented and well known, its fix is not. Politicians talk about the potential for a government plan to alleviate the debt; some states talk about making state colleges tuition-free. This is all good — but it may not happen. And, even if it does, it is unlikely to be enough.
What can be done? How does one person grapple with a $1.5 trillion national problem that has no single identity yet affects so many people? You cannot just write a check. It is not the United Way (or Jacob's Pillow or Mass MoCA). Let's start by chipping away.
We have created the "Make A Difference Student Debt Reduction Fund" at Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. Its goal is to eliminate $5,000 in loans for each of the five graduating seniors at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who have the highest levels of student debt. At MCLA (located in North Adams), about 85 percent of students graduate with debt. Almost a third of its students have household incomes below $30,000 and about a quarter of the student body are the first in their families to attend college. They deserve some credit — and a break.
But this fund is not the only way caring individuals can tackle this problem. You can do so by making a restricted gift to your alma mater or local college, specifying that the funds are to be used to reduce student debt. Set your own guidelines.
While we can't resolve a $1.5 trillion problem, we have the power to help some students alleviate this burden. Achieving a college degree should not be at the cost of long-term financial viability.