Last year, 2,283 students borrowed a total of more than $9 million dollars to attend Holyoke Community College. That's about a quarter of the HCC student body, according to HCC President William Messner.
The average amount borrowed was $4,000 per student, a number that has doubled over the past five years, while the number of borrowers has increased by 58 percent. During that time, the default rate on loans has also gone up, by 116 percent.
The message from those statistics was quite plain to everyone who attended a legislative hearing on student debt held Monday at HCC: loan debt is becoming an increasing burden to students, and something needs to be done about it.
"What makes those figures even more troubling is that we are a low-cost institution," Messner told the legislative group. "Indeed, in most years, we are either the first or second lowest cost institution in the state."
The public hearing was conducted by the Joint Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, which is chaired by Rep. Paul Mark of Peru, from Berkshire County. This was the second in a series of public hearings held by the subcommittee across the state.
"We all know student debt is an issue," said State Rep. Aaron Vega, who represents Holyoke and attended HCC. "It's not a surprise. We're looking to learn what innovative things we can do at the state level and university level to cut college costs."
HCC student Shana Nunez talked about the struggles she faces living on her own, paying bills and commuting to HCC every day from Springfield using public transportation. She stays up late doing homework every night and gets up at 5 a.m. every day to make sure she arrives on time for her morning classes.
"I have a 3.94 GPA and I'm struggling to imagine what my cost of living will be when I move on from HCC," she said. "I can't go on to college if I don't get some sort of scholarship," she said. "Unfortunately, that's the reality for most students."
Her fears were echoed by HCC student Jeremy McGarry, who said he's not sure if he will be able to afford to continue on to a four-year college after HCC.
"It's terrible because we spend so much time enlightening ourselves in college to gain the insight to basically live a better life and as of right now it's definitely difficult," McGarry told 22News before the hearing.
Among those who also spoke at the meeting were Vanessa Martinez, HCC associate professor of Anthropology; Robin Rondeau, HCC senior financial aid counselor; Ira Rubenzahl, president of Springfield Technical Community College; Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College; and representatives from PHENOM (Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) and CEPA (The Center for Education Policy Advocacy) at UMass.
President Messner recommended an increase in state funding to public colleges to help keep costs down for students, coupled with an increase in financial aid.
A third way of keeping costs down, said Messner, admitting that it would be a little selfish, was to drive more students to community colleges for their first two years of school.
"Certainly," he said, "a student who starts at a community college at $5,000 a year and then moves on to a four-year public at twice that cost or a four-year private at multiples of that cost is going to be doing themselves a favor."
Click here to read a full text of President Messner's remarks to the subcommittee from Monday's hearing.
Click here to see a report of the hearing on Channel 22News:
Photos: (Left) State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, talks to HCC President William Messner before the public hearing on student debt Monday. (Right) Channel 22News reporter Kaitlin Goslee interviews Jeremy McGarry, president of the HCC Student Senate, before the hearing.