BOSTON – A bill creating a bill of rights for student loan borrowers and an ombudsman’s office to protect these borrowers has come into force in Massachusetts.
State Senator Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, was the originator of this bill and six years after first proposing the legislation he passed in January as part of the Bill on the $ 627 million economic development of the state legislature. On July 1, Arwen Thoman was appointed the state’s first student loan ombudsman, whose work will be conducted out of the attorney general’s office.
Lesser’s office on Thursday aired a pre-recorded conversation with Attorney General Maura Healey to discuss the impacts the new bill of rights and the ombudsman’s office will have.
“It will give my office more tools, more resources, to help advocate for student borrowers,” Healey said. “I think this is a really important resource for student loan borrowers in our state.”
The Bill of Rights provides regulations for the licensing and operation of student loan services. It also allows the new ombudsman to deal with borrower complaints, including helping them with repayment options, requesting federal loan cancellation programs, ending wage garnishments and tax refunds for people in default, resolving billing disputes and obtaining information about their loans.
According to the “Project on Student Debt” set up by the Institute for College Access & Success in 2019, 55% of Massachusetts graduates are in debt for their studies. The organization ranks Massachusetts as a “heavily indebted state,” with the average borrower owing $ 33,256.
Lesser and Healey noted that contrary to stereotypes of the typical student debtor, borrowers over 60 are a rapidly growing group, as grandparents and families co-sign loans. And the effects of that debt can be devastating, preventing people in debt from taking the jobs they want, buying a house, getting married or having children, Lesser said.
Lesser told the story of an East Longmeadow constituent – a special education teacher who ran into debt while earning a master’s degree for the job. He said she was diagnosed with cancer and, with two young children, could not work in the midst of chemo and child care.
“She couldn’t even call her loan officer on the phone… to try and get answers to her questions about possible forbearance or assistance programs,” Lesser said. Addressing Healey, he added: “At least now they can call your office.”
During the conversation – which is part of Lesser’s “Lunchtime Livestream” series that he hosts online – Healey spoke about his office’s work to fight predatory lenders and for-profit colleges that have plagued students. huge debts.
“There are so many negative implications and consequences of student debt,” Healey said. “We have an economic imperative to deal with this as a country.”
Healey and Lesser reminded listeners that although the federal government has suspended federal student loan payments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this moratorium is expected to expire on September 30. Borrowers affected by this change should contact the new ombudsman’s office, they said.
The bill of rights does not slow the country’s growing student debt, which Healy says has topped $ 1.7 trillion in total. Timmy Sullivan, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, or PHENOM, said Massachusetts ranks 10th nationally for average student loan debt.
Sullivan said PHENOM has advocated for a student loan bill of rights for years. He pointed out that State Representative Natalie Higgins D-Leominster – one of the main sponsors of the bill along with Lesser – was herself previously the executive director of PHENOM.
However, Sullivan said PHENOM and other advocates for the state want public higher education to be debt free.
“There’s always this lingering problem, and it’s the existence of such a thing called student debt,” Sullivan said. “The best protection is never having to take out a loan to learn. “
PHENOM and others support a bill that would create free public higher education in Massachusetts. This bill has already been supported by other lawmakers in the Western Massachusetts delegation, including State Representatives Lindsay Sabadosa, Patricia Duffy and Mindy Domb, and State Senators Jo Comerford, Adam Hinds and Lesser, according to a text of the bill on the Legislature’s website.
There is a call for action at the federal level as well, with some calling on President Joe Biden to use his legal authority to write off all or part of student debt. Biden has resisted those calls, including from Healey and a group of federal lawmakers who have asked him to forgive up to $ 50,000 for those with student debt.
Healey says she is not on the side of those calling for the complete elimination of student debt at the federal level, but is following the lead of Senator Elizabeth Warren in asking for the cancellation of $ 50,000 .
“I think we’ll be so much better at it,” she said.