Our Opinion: Student debt problem is a social justice issue

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The explosion of student debt is a problem that some older Americans have trouble understanding, because there once was a time when students were actually able to pay their way through college by working part-time jobs while pursuing their studies. Unfortunately, working one's way through school has become a quaint concept that new economic realities have thrown on the ash heap of history, along with single-earner families and a living entry-level wage.

The difficulty of finding adequately paying jobs as well as the explosive cost of obtaining a college education have created a whole class of people who work hard but spend a large proportion of their lives repaying old college debts. This can have a depressing effect on the general economy, causing debtors to postpone raising families and buying houses as well as restricting their activities.

In an attempt to confront and relieve this problem, state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-East Longmeadow, has filed a bill designed to protect student borrowers from lenders' abusive and predatory practices, which are particularly egregious as lenders seek to take advantage of the relative financial illiteracy of young people. It would establish a student loan ombudsman, require student loan services to get a license and enable officials to investigate abusive practices. According to Sen. Lesser, 855,000 borrowers of student loans owe a combined $33.3 billion in the Bay State, out of whom almost 95,000 are delinquent. The Massachusetts problem, moreover, comprises only a fraction of the national student loan crisis. The problem has become so pervasive that debt is even being passed through generations, as students ask parents who still haven't paid off their own loans for help.

There is talk that this is the year for meaningful legislation to pass, since more and more young representatives are being elected, and some of them still carry their own loans — adding a sense of immediacy to the problem. One of the sponsors is state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield who sees the current student loan environment in social justice terms. As he told The Eagle, "Our current system is morally wrong and bad policy. We tell students you need a college degree to make more money, and then make it near impossible to achieve financial stability by taking that path."

Part of the solution to the problem is to bring it to the full attention of the public, along with the economic ramifications that can have a chilling effect on the state's economy. This bill, then, has a twofold purpose: to educate and rectify. Considering the potential good it can do, it should be passed and signed forthwith.


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