The problem in the Bay State is severe enough that Attorney General Maura Healey created the position of student loan ombudsman in her office last month
At this point it’s cliché to note that returning and new college students are poised to invade Allston in September.
What gets less attention is the extent to which actual universities invade neighborhoods.
Harvard, for one, spent its summer finalizing plans to further gentrify lower Allston through its so-called “Enterprise Research Campus.” Following a series of meetings with the Harvard-Allston Task Force, the development company Tishman Speyer and Harvard are now waiting for final approval from the city.
The development will include a hotel, a conference center, lab space, and 345 units of housing along Western Avenue, across the street from Harvard Business School.
Harvard’s definition of “affordable” means that 51 units will be made available to households that make 70% of the median income in a part of town where that figure is as high as $59,200 for a single-person household. Seven more units, labeled as “affordable,” will go to renters who make 100% of the median income, which is $84,600. Let that sink in.
The City of Boston’s inclusionary development policy requires about 13% of the units in a proposed housing development be set aside as “affordable.” At 58 units, the project technically exceeds that requirement at 17%. Harvard’s presentation at a recent meeting before the Allston-Harvard Task Force repeatedly referenced that fact, though the project’s developer claimed in a presentation that cuts to the tenant income limit could “force” them to reduce the total number of affordable units.
Despite the extra units, housing advocates and Allston locals continue to express concern that the loose definition of “affordable” means most of the new units will remain out of reach for many Allston residents in need. Imagine that, affordable housing isn’t a top Harvard priority.
Students across the state are either getting ready to learn, or already know about the heavy burden of student loans.
Over 1 million residents of Massachusetts have outstanding student debt, with the average balance on that debt averaging about $32,000 per person. As of 2020, there was a total of $35.9 billion in student debt across the Commonwealth, according to Student Loan Hero, which compiled the stats using data from the US Department of Education, My LendingTree credit reports, Equifax, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel. Those figures are from mid-2020, so they do not completely show how the pandemic has exacerbated the debt.
A recent survey from GBH found that a majority of public universities in Massachusetts used COVID-19 relief funds to settle recently-unpaid student bills out of concern that increasing tuition costs and the economic burden of the pandemic are resulting in drops in admissions.
The problem in the Bay State is severe enough that Attorney General Maura Healey created the position of student loan ombudsman in her office last month. The person in the oversight role will be responsible for resolving student complaints and monitoring debt servicers to cut down on predatory practices. The creation of the position was part of the state’s Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights, which was signed into law earlier this year.
State Senator Eric Lesser and state Rep. Natalie Higgins co-sponsored the bill.
“Nearly a million people within Massachusetts collectively owe over $40 billion in student loans, and until now have not benefited from adequate state-level consumer protections on one of the biggest financial investments in their lives,” Lesser said in a media statement.
The high cost of higher education is a national epidemic far beyond the confines of Massachusetts.
About two-thirds of all college students in the country borrow at least a portion of the cash needed to attend school, with an average of about $39,000 in debt per person. Total student loan debt in the country surpassed $1.7 billion in 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Conservatives, particularly those who would argue against any form of loan forgiveness, often blame the debt problem on students who frivolously waste time on “worthless” degrees.
But the problem may actually be poor spending habits of cash-hungry universities themselves, according to a new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
The study, released on Aug. 17, showed a 20% spike in admissions overall during the last decade. Since 1990, that increase has been 178%. Across the board, the report found that colleges were using that extra income primarily on administration and student services instead of actual instruction.
While schools were becoming more expensive, their graduation rates over the last 10 years only increased 7% for public institutions and 4% for private colleges.
“This report illustrates the implications for students—both financially and academically—of the steady growth in spending since the Great Recession. It is our hope that public awareness of this trend’s impact on student finances and student outcomes will encourage more prudent choices,” ACTA President Michael Poliakoff said.
In a larger sense, the report explains how the nation’s student debt crisis needs more than loan forgiveness to prevent an economic collapse.