Student Loan Viewpoints: Massachusetts Lawmaker Natalie Higgins

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Natalie Higgins is a Democratic representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, representing the 4th district, in the northern-central town of Leominster — she’s also someone with a lot of student loans.

“As one of those millennials that has six figures of student loan debt, it absolutely impacts every decision that I make in my life,” Higgins told Student Loan Hero.

Between her leadership position and personal experience, Higgins understands the student loan debt crisis in the U.S. very well, and she’s hoping to protect her state’s borrowers from predatory loan servicers and to make college more affordable for all.

Meet Natalie Higgins

Student loans have become a major part of the national conversation, with Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders calling for debt-free college and forgiveness of federal loans.

As part of the generation burdened by unprecedented rates of student loan borrowing, Higgins is one of the politicians shining a spotlight on this issue. Higgins (a law school graduate) and her fiance together owe more than $220,000 in student loans.

“We did everything we were supposed to do,” said Higgins. “We went to school, we got degrees, we went to graduate school. We don’t regret our education for one second, but it’s going to take us a really long time to pay that back.”

To reduce her $1,300-a-month payment, Higgins signed up for income-driven repayment, which reduced her payments to just over $400 per month. She’s also counting on Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that wipes away any remaining loan balance after 10 years of service with a nonprofit, government or other qualifying organization.

For Higgins, sharing her personal struggle with debt is important for showing other student loan borrowers they’re not alone.

“For those of us who are comfortable and [feel] it’s OK for us to come forward and share those stories, I think it’s really important,” said Higgins. “It helps folks understand that this isn’t a personal responsibility — this is a collective community problem.”

Natalie Higgins on the student debt crisis

As of 2019, nearly 45 million Americans owed $1.56 trillion in student loans.

“I absolutely think we’re in a crisis when it comes to student loan debt,” said Higgins. “Borrowers are putting lifelong decisions hold — buying a car, buying a home, getting their own apartment, starting a family.”

But, she added, student loans aren’t just a millennial issue; they’re affecting people of all ages.

“One in 5 borrowers are over the age of 60,” said Higgins. “It’s unconscionable that we have seniors losing their Social Security for student loan debt payments.”

Those who fall behind on their federal student loan payments can experience garnishment of wages, tax refunds or even Social Security benefits. And, as Higgins said, many of these borrowers are also facing a mountain of other bills.

“People who have had illnesses [for example] are still stuck trying to figure out how to pay off student loan debt when they aren’t able to work and they’re dealing with growing medical bills,” said Higgins. “It’s unbelievably frustrating.”

Proposals and solutions

Higgins is working on a number of initiatives to protect student loan borrowers in Massachusetts. Here’s what she’s doing at the state level, as well as some national proposals she supports.

Introducing a student loan bill of rights

Shortly after entering office, Higgins introduced a student loan bill of rights, modeled after similar legislation in the state of Connecticut. This bill would protect consumers from unfair lending practices.

“We’re working on making sure that Massachusetts not only has a borrower bill of rights … to make sure that student loan servicers aren’t being predators … but also to make sure we have a student loan ombudsman in the state of Massachusetts, so we have a one-stop shop for anyone having issues with their student loans,” Higgins said.

The ombudsman agency which Higgens has proposed would oversee lenders and loan servicers in the state to ensure they’re honoring consumer protections.

Implementing the Finish Line Grant

Higgins is also working to help students finish college, pointing out that many who run into financial hardship leave school before earning their degrees, getting stuck with college loans but not having the college credential to repay them more easily.

“There’s a whole new issue of degree-less debtors,” said Higgins. “They don’t have that extra earning power but are stuck paying $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 worth of debt. That debt can be so debilitating.”

To lower drop-out rates, Higgins is working with other representatives on a college grant for low-income students called the “Finish Line Grant.”

“It’s a great bipartisan solution we’re working on,” said Higgins. “We want to help students who are enrolled in college get to the finish line. They’ve taken the initiative to go to college, and we don’t want them to be dropping out.”

Protecting student loan borrowers’ licenses

Higgins also seeks to rewrite a state law that allows student loan borrowers to be stripped of their professional licenses for falling behind on their repayment.

“In Massachusetts, you can still lose your occupational license or any other kind of state-granted license because you default on your student loan debt,” said Higgins. “We’re trying to end that with a pretty simple bill.”

By removing that language from the state’s laws, Higgins and others hope to ensure student loan borrowers don’t lose their driver’s, teacher’s or other license due to their student loans.

Eliminating tuition at public colleges

Higgins is also committed to bringing down the cost of college for students and their families.

“I’m also pushing for legislation in Massachusetts to bring down the costs of public higher education, because that is a major piece of the puzzle,” Higgins said. “Right now you’re graduating from a four-year public university in Massachusetts with over $30,000 in debt. That wasn’t the reality 30 years ago.”

In fact, Higgins said, a state-funded MASSGrant in 1988 would cover 90% of tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Today, that same grant would cover less than 9% of those costs.

“In my lifetime I’ve seen the government walk away from an affordable and accessible public higher education for our students,” Higgins said. “We’re asking for the same opportunities that our parents’ generation had.”

Offering state student loan refinancing options

Many borrowers are struggling with private student loans, which can sometimes come with high interest rates and aren’t eligible for federal income-driven repayment plans. Higgins says introducing state refinancing options could help ease the burden for borrowers.

“U.S. education financing authorities could help student loan debtors be able to refinance their private student loans with federal protections through the state,” said Higgins. “Massachusetts and other states should explore [this option].”

A big advantage of having a state refinancing option would be allowing borrowers to possibly grab a lower interest rate, even if they don’t have strong enough credit to refinance with a bank or other private lender.

Supporting mass forgiveness of student loans

Finally, Higgins is hopeful about the idea of student loan forgiveness on a mass scale.

“We’ve given a whole lot of tax breaks to a whole lot of people,” she said. “We should be considering what would this do to our economy if we gave this opportunity for student loan borrowers to actually be able to fully participate in our economy.”

According to Higgins, this kind of loan forgiveness could be “life-changing” for a lot of people.

“We’ve seen our government give these kind of breaks to really wealthy individuals,” she said. “I think it’s time that we do this for someone who just did exactly what we asked of them — to go and seek an education so they could better support themselves and their families.”

Solving the problems facing students today

Higgins knows the student loan debt crisis won’t go away on its own, and she’s working on a number of initiatives to help students and student loan borrowers in the Bay State.

“This is not just an issue that’s affecting my generation,” said Higgins. “It’s affecting everyone’s generation. We have to figure out a way to fix this.”

Through enhancing borrower protections, lowering the cost of college and other initiatives, Higgins is aiming to help solve the student loan crisis and make college more accessible for all.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing. 

 

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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