BOSTON — With nearly two-thirds of college students in Massachusetts carrying an average debt of $25,541, the commonwealth faces the prospect of even more borrowing by its young citizens and a drop in attendance at its long list of colleges and universities.
"That is one thing we are going to be looking at over hopefully this next year," said Sen. Michael Moore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.
Moore's goal is to bring down costs to students to help reduce further debt. But any relief the Statehouse might provide depends largely on Washington. With the continuing gridlock in Congress, the amount of that aid is up in the air.
"We have 117,000 students who receive Pell grants, so the loss of Pell grants is going to necessitate possibly more student loans," Moore said.
According to the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit independent research and policy organization, student loan debt is more than a trillion dollars nationally, with Massachusetts ranking as the 12th-highest state.
Some North Shore officials are well aware of the dangers of students carrying too much loan debt and the possible impact on the state's higher education system.
"We don't know what is going to happen at the federal level in a lot of instances," said state Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem.
With tuition at some private universities topping $50,000 a year, Keenan wonders how middle-class families can afford the debt load and when the rate of tuition inflation might abate.
"Part of our goal is to keep the state university system as affordable as possible," said Keenan, who said he recently met with the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, and Salem State University President Patricia Meservey at Salem State.
Their talk touched on the cost of higher education, but not on any specific bill to attack the problem. Keenan said he was not aware of a bill specifically designed to reduce the burden of student loan debt.
Scott James, the associate vice president of enrollment management at Salem State University, echoed Keenan when he said Salem State can be a less expensive higher education alternative. In-state tuition and fees at Salem State are $7,730, according to the school's website. It costs another $9,630 if students want to live on the campus.
However, the college has a particularly needy student population. About 40 percent qualify for Pell grants.
"Any reduction in Pell grants would have an impact on student population," James said. In the following year, qualifications for Pell grants could be tightened, making it harder for students to receive them.
North Shore Community College, which has campuses in Danvers, Lynn and Beverly, provides a low-cost way for many students to lessen their loan burden by offering two-year associate's degrees and the ability to transfer as a junior to a four-year college, its president said.
"The increasing cost of higher education and relatively flat and declining grant aid does cause students and parents to rethink their higher education plans," Wayne Burton said in an email. "When they do, they find the community college option very attractive as our tuition and fees are relatively low and our quality comparable. Our strong enrollments are in part attributable to loan avoidance, especially in the first two years.
"Also," Burton added, "we do not include loans in our financial aid packages and try to cover direct costs for students with demonstrated need with grant assistance. Students can apply for a loan if they wish. But in this way we keep the initial debt down as they may need more leeway when they continue on through bachelor's and master's degrees."
Carrington Moore, a Boston University theology graduate student with about $17,000 in loans, sees the likelihood of federal cuts to college aid more than an issue of money.
"I think budgets are moral documents," he said. "I think how we allocate resources and allocate monies toward students is a great way of dealing with the budget crisis and student loan issue on a state level. We need to start lobbying for more money to be sent the way of students to really help them out."
State appropriations for all forms of education, from preschool to higher education, were about 25 percent of this year's state budget, a percentage that has been dwindling due to the state's continuing budget problems. Since 2005, the commonwealth's expenditures for higher education have fallen with the national recession. In 2008, funding reached $1 billion. In 2010, that number fell to $846 million.
Still, the state's financial picture is better than most, Keenan said, with a $1 billion "rainy day" fund and a high bond rating, but the state is cautious when it comes to spending.
"It's going to be difficult to make large increases to any large line item," Keenan said, "including higher education."
The Bay State is near the bottom of the list when it comes to per-capita expenditures on public higher education, something Keenan would like to see addressed.
During the current session, the higher education committee looked at options to help some students studying for jobs critical to the commonwealth. One bill reported out favorably in November would provide financial help to those studying to become social workers — a necessary but low-paying public job.
The $2 million proposal, now in the House Ways and Means Committee, would provide 100 social workers $250 a month to help defray costs.
"So what we are talking about doing is maybe doubling the allotment the expenditure and increasing it to 200 people but it would cover 100 social workers and 100 human service workers," Moore said.
Carrington sees this focused financial aid as a logical solution.
"I have a lot of friends who do Teach for America, so I think a great part of the conversation about forgiveness of school loans is having school loans attached to some sort of civic service or civic engagement," he said. "Not only does it help the student pay off loans, but it helps build leadership and communities, as well."
Student loans have been an issue among Occupy Wall Street protesters, who feel extreme measures are needed to get true reform. The Occupy Student Debt campaign, launched in November, encourages members to pledge to default on their student loans if the movement can get 1 million pledges.
"You're not going to get reform by keep paying," said John Murphy, an Occupy Boston protester who lost his job as a carpenter and took a semester of classes at Cape Cod Community College before quitting to join the movement. "You're just clearly showing people you are a slave to society, a slave to the dollar pretty much."
As of now, the Occupy Student Debt campaign claims to have almost 2,900 signatures. But students such as Clair Richards, a recent BU graduate, are passing on the protest because they feel a sense of financial responsibility.
"When I signed the contract to get those loans, I told them I would pay it back," she said. "To me, I don't feel like I am getting gypped. If I decided not to pay back my loans, it wouldn't be addressing the problem, which is just the cost of higher education itself."
Loan experts say the most pragmatic solution to the high cost of higher education is prevention.
"Families don't know how they are going to do it," said Martha Savery, director of the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority's community outreach program, which helps families learn about state and federal aid plans. "There is $154 billion of financial aid that was given out last year, so even for families to hear that there actually is a real number and that people have been helped sometimes will help offset their concerns and their worries."
Staff writer Ethan Forman contributed to this report.