By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren stood up for fellow New England Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday, saying the New Hampshire Democrat would be tough to beat no matter who runs against her, including Scott Brown.

Brown, who sold his Wrentham home and moved to New Hampshire late last year, has been toying with a possible run in the Granite State, making numerous political appearances while he continues his work at a Boston law firm and as a commentator on FOX News. His website has been updated with a "Coming Soon" message and a new slogan: "Giving Power Back to the People."

"That's got to be up to him. I think that Jeanne Shaheen is a terrific senator and I think she would be a very tough candidate for anyone to beat," Warren said on Tuesday morning, after an appearance at Charlestown High School where she took part in an event to spread awareness about the importance of students filling out college financial aid forms.

Warren last spring helped lead a charge in the Senate to try to keep interest rates on federal student loans from increasing. She co-sponsored a bill that would have rolled back interest rates and frozen them for a year at 3.4 percent, but the bill failed.

After a session marked by inaction and partisan sniping, Democrats are fighting in this year's mid-term elections to retain Senate control and make gains in the House. Warren said investing in higher education should be part of any Democrat's platform. After defeating Brown in 2012, Warren is not on this year's ballot, but U.S. Sen. Edward Markey faces a re-election effort if he hopes to secure a full six-year Senate term.

"Part of what they should be campaigning on are the investments we need to make in education and that means both trying to bring down the cost of college because we make adequate public investment and it means refinancing the student loan debt that's out there. This is powerfully important to every family that's hit by this, but also powerfully important to our economy," Warren said.

Despite Congress's dismal approval ratings, Warren said Democrats do have a record to campaign on.

"When I fought on the student loan issues last spring, every single Republican lined up against helping our students so I think the Democrats have a good record to run on. Not a perfect record. We need to do more. But we're certainly in the direction of trying to help," Warren said.

Warren visited the Charlestown High School gymnasium to take part in a kick-off event for FAFSA Day, encouraging students planning to attend college, or even just thinking about attending college, to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"It's not smart to not fill out the form. You're leaving money on the table if you don't fill out the form," Warren told students, pointing to her own Boston regional director Jason Burrell, a 2007 Charlestown High School graduate, as inspiration for the students.

Warren told the students that she was "not born the state's senior senator," and relied on grants, loans and scholarships to pay her own way through a "commuter college." She graduated from the University of Houston.

A coalition of organizations, including the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, the Massachusetts Association of Financial Aid Administrators and the Massachusetts Educational Finance Authority, will host volunteer staffed events at 33 locations around the state on Jan. 26 and Feb. 23 to help students and their families fill out the forms.

"Fill out the form. That's my message," Education Secretary Matthew Malone said, drawing laughter from the students as he continually repeated the phrase.

According to officials, nearly 30 percent of undergraduates at Massachusetts public colleges and universities do not complete the FAFSA form, which is used to determine eligibility for a variety of state and federal student grant and loan programs.

Because of that, more than 130,000 students a year miss the May 1 deadline to receive student financial aid through the MASSGrant program, a state-run program that provides about $39 million a year in financial aid to over 50,000 students most in need of assistance. 

"For many students, financial aid is the difference between going and not going and if you don't go you'll pay for it for the rest of your life," said Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, who said limiting college debt is also critical to future life choices for college graduates.

Following the event, Warren spent several minutes with a small group of students in a computer lab who were working with teachers and staff to fill out their FAFSA forms online, offering tips and advice. "Make this happen," she said. "You don't want me on your case."