“A Debt-Free Future is Possible” for College Students in Massachusetts

Angelina Clark, Staff Writer

Western Mass Area Labor Federation (WMALF) aims to bring union members of Western Massachusetts together, in addition to fighting for student debt forgiveness. Photo by Angelina Clark.

On Friday, April 14th, 2023, Higher Ed for All Coalition hosted “A Debt-Free Future is Possible” at MASS MoCA in North Adams. At this event, the significance of the student debt crisis was highlighted. The intricacies of this cause were revealed through displays, speeches, and art. 

The event featured various displays and tables, showcasing statistics about student debt and advocating for causes such as abolishing standardized test requirements on school applications (like the MCAS, or Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and the importance of unions in the fight for student debt forgiveness. MCLA and Greenfield Community College also attended, showcasing their respective schools. 

This event featured a variety of speakers from the Massachusetts higher education system. Each speaker was introduced by MCLA’s own Hannah Haynes, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, and MCLA’s Faculty Union President. Haynes began the event by sharing her close relationship with labor unions and how they were a large part of her family while growing up. She shared that more than 42% of MCLA students are Pel grant recipients, and 51.4% are the first person in their families to attend college. She emphasized just how crucial debt-free education is for students of the Berkshires, and students of the entire Commonwealth. 

Speakers at the event included Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association, Lynette Bond, Dean of Graduate and Continuing Education at MCLA, and Adam Klepatar, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Berkshire Community College. Each speaker shared their reasons for caring about the fight for student-debt forgiveness in addition to their “why”, or why access to education is personally important to them. 

There were a variety of anecdotes; many were first-generation college students, immigrants, or the children of working-class parents. Though they all come from different backgrounds, one feeling all the speakers shared is the stress that immense student debt has caused them. Many were candid about how much student debt they have personally accrued, and guests at the event were offered the opportunity to wear a sticker showcasing the amount of their personal debt
Michelle Schutt, President of Greenfield Community College (GCC), revealed a surprising anecdote about student debt. When Senator Elizabeth Warren visited GCC, she shared the shocking reality that 40% of people with student loan debt do not have a degree. People who were unable to finish their high education due to life events, family issues, costs, etc. still must pay thousands of dollars for many years to come, yet don’t even have a degree to show for it.

Some speakers drew attention to the devastating effects of student debt and loan payments on students they have interacted with. Monica Rocha Antonin, Coordinator of Academic English as a Second Language at Holyoke Community College, brought light to the massive emotional burden student debt can become. Antonin, a first-generation immigrant herself, shared an anecdote about a student who is a Ukrainian refugee. 

The student was experiencing issues with her scholarship, so Antonin brought up the idea of a payment plan, which brought the student to tears. Student debt is foreign to students from other countries, and the concept of never-ending debt payment is overwhelming and stressful, especially for someone who has recently escaped a war-torn country. 

The event came to a close with artist Kelli Rae Adams, who introduced and showcased her art exhibit Forever in Your Debt. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree, Adams lived and worked in Japan as an English teacher. While there, she built her pottery skills, and a few years later, while residing in France, she came up with a groundbreaking idea for a project. She received an annual email detailing the amount of student debt she currently possesses, and it inspired her to utilize her extensive pottery skills and artiste to make a statement. 

She imagined a room full of clay bowls, filled with change that equals the average amount of student debt in America. Instead of using her own money to fill the bowls, she invited the art viewers from every museum she displayed the work at to fill a bowl with any spare change they may have. Participants will receive a piece of the exhibit once it has concluded, and they will also possess the knowledge that they contributed to a work of art with a crucial message.

The speakers and their respective messages conjured feelings of hope and optimism regarding the future of student debt. With passionate leaders, educators, students, and citizens, the possibility of student debt forgiveness is merely on the horizon as opposed to a million miles away.