By Lisa Hagen

Statehouse Bureau

BOSTON -- State Sen. Eileen Donoghue has been crisscrossing the state this fall to hear concerns from colleges, students, and families about a central issue: student loans and debt.

Donoghue, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, said she's concerned about the unaffordability of college. Her committee is also working with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. John Tierney to tackle federal loans and rising interest rates.

Funding to Massachusetts state schools has been reduced over the past decade, but this year, the Legislature appropriated $1.1 billion in funding, allowing state universities to freeze tuition and fees. The funding saw an increase in 8.3 percent from fiscal year 2013, adjusted for inflation, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

"This was one step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go to make up for the cuts," said Donoghue, a Lowell Democrat. "It is also the responsibility of the colleges themselves to rein in the costs and work more collaboratively."

A hearing at UMass Lowell on Sept. 23 opened the first in a series of seven hearings to listen to suggestions for ways to make college more affordable. Donoghue stressed the need for financial literacy so parents and students understand the different types of loans available and how they will have to pay for them from the beginning.

Donoghue also mentioned a program that allows both dual enrollment in high school and college by allowing current high school students to take community college courses so they can receive college credit before they graduate.

"The American Dream so to speak is alive and there is a strong desire for higher education," she said. "But the most discouraging and heartbreaking scenarios are the students who go to school for a couple of years, acquire debt, and drop out with no degree and no job."

Marty Meehan, chancellor at UMass Lowell who testified at the hearing, said in an interview that the school has programs such as a first-year financial literacy seminar and opportunities for a co-op so students can make money in their field while in school.

"We have programs so that students are more vigilant about what they borrow and be careful about how they borrow and plan to pay it back," Meehan said. "I think putting focus on this issue is extremely important because parents and students are deciding where they're going to college like how to buy a home or a car."

Robert Antonucci, president of Fitchburg State University who testified at the Nov. 8 Worcester hearing, said in an interview that his school uses alternative revenue streams, such as raising money through its foundation to fund scholarships. He also said there are between 30 and 40 students enrolled at Mt. Wachusett Community College in Gardner who are transported to the school everyday to take classes and use the facilities as a form of cost containment.

"You don't use money as a reason for students to not go to school," he said. "Everyone recognizes the responsibility to do our part and we have to keep an eye on the ball."

Antonucci said his school along with three others in central Massachusetts formed a consortium called Central Links to operate jointly with tasks such as grant writing.

Donoghue also heard testimony in support of encouraging students to attend community colleges. Many public universities have agreements with community colleges, so students can transfer after two years with full credits and graduate from a 4-year college.

Carole Cowan, president of Middlesex Community College who also attended the Lowell hearing, said in an interview that her school awards $900,000 a year in institutional aid for those who don't quality for Pell grants. She said 13 percent of students enrolled took out some form of a loan last year and the average student left with a debt of $5,000.

"I think it's a positive thing happening that colleges themselves are working on operational efficiencies and statewide initiatives working together to lower cost on individual campuses," she said. 

Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Lowell and Bedford, had about 300 students transfer to UMass Lowell for the current semester, according to UMass Lowell's media relations' office.

Daniel Asquino, president of Mt. Wachusett Community College, said the agreements between two-year and four-year colleges are credible, citing that a student would spend a total of $20,000 to $25,000 for all four years. He said when students transfer, they can take courses at the actual campus or online.

"This program has been evolving over the past five to six years and the exact reason is to try to keep cost down," he said. "We have an obligation as a community college to keep from going up and this is our community."

Once the hearings conclude next month, Donoghue said the subcommittee will compile the information and testimonies into a report she hopes will be ready by March. From there, the report will go to the Joint Committee on Higher Education with possible legislation connected to their findings.