As Senate vice chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, my goal is to ensure that every Massachusetts resident has access to an affordable, high-quality degree program. With the right policies in place, our public higher education system can be a ladder to the middle class, and it can give Massachusetts the competitive edge it needs to compete nationally and internationally in the 21st century.

Reducing student debt

Massachusetts has been hit particularly hard by the student debt crisis. Sixty-five percent of students who graduated from colleges and universities in Massachusetts in 2014 were in debt, and they owed, on average, $29,391. That has broad economic and social implications, because Americans with student loan debt are less likely to purchase a home, get married, start a family, or open a business.

Student debt is a threat to the commonwealth’s economic health, and because there is no silver bullet, we need to take a multi-pronged approach to addressing it. In 2014 I served as Senate Chair of the Subcommittee on Student Loan and Debt, which published a report recommending a number of policies that would reduce student debt.

I filed several bills each session that would put those recommendations into effect. One of them creates a tax deduction to match contributions to 529 college savings plans, up to $1,000 for single filers and up to $2,000 for married couples filing jointly. That legislation, which the governor signed into law in August of 2016, will help families send their kids to college to receive a degree and a brighter future, rather than a crushing mountain of debt.

The Senate unanimously passed two of my other bills aimed at reducing student debt, one to increase transparency around financial aid and the other to further align community college workforce programs with economic development goals. I will file them again next session and keep pushing for their full passage. We can’t rest until the student debt crisis is under control.

Aligning higher education curricula with workforce needs

In a few years, Massachusetts will face labor shortages in fields including data science, computer programming, and advanced manufacturing. All three segments of the public higher education system—the University of Massachusetts, the state universities, and the community colleges—have a role to play in eliminating those shortages.

Many local employers who struggle to find employees with the right skills have successfully partnered with community colleges to meet their workforce needs. The arrangement is hugely beneficial to businesses, which find the workers they need to succeed, and to students, who find stable, good-paying jobs. I will continue to be an advocate for vocationally-oriented community college programs that set students on the path to careers in high-demand fields.

Public universities are also tailoring their curricula to workforce needs. The University of Massachusetts Lowell offers degrees in rapidly growing fields like data science and business analytics, and Middlesex Community College has a program that prepares students to work in cybersecurity—an area that will see explosive job growth over the next decade. I will continue working to ensure that our public higher education system is preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Read the report of the Subcommittee on Student Loan and Debt