Thank you, Chairman Gabrieli and members of the Board of Higher Education, for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I am Bahar Akman Imboden, the Director of the Hildreth Institute, a research and policy center focused on systemic issues in higher education with the goal of making college more equitable, affordable, and attainable for all.

Higher education is the great equalizer in society. But, only when it is accessible and affordable. 

According to our research, tuition and fees in Massachusetts have steadily increased over the past 20 years. While this is not unique to Massachusetts, other states have been boosting their financial aid to students. However, in Massachusetts, until recently, funding for state grants and scholarships has been declining. 

As the purchasing power of state financial aid has continued to erode, students are facing high levels of unmet need- which is the financial gap students have to shoulder to cover their cost of attendance, which includes costs beyond tuition and fees,  such as books, internet and computer access, housing, and transportation.

These needs add up to over $8,500 each year for community college students and $12,000 each year for students at four-year universities.  It is no surprise that Massachusetts students are shouldering the nation’s fifth highest student debt burden. 

To access aid, students must also navigate an overly complex system of more than three dozen small dollar scholarships, grants, and waivers with various deadlines and requirements.  Students who know about and can easily apply for aid are more likely to pursue a degree. Confusion around the entire process – including how much students could even qualify for – are barriers for our neediest students, especially those who do not have access to the advisors and tools that many of their peers rely on during the application process.  

We are pleased to see that the EY-Parthenon Report has resulted in some strong, student-centric recommendations – in particular, the call to double state-funded financial aid by expanding MASSGrant Plus to reach more students and cover some – but not all – unmet need. 

This is a step in the right direction to prevent public higher ed students from having to take out burdensome student loans, but it will not be sufficient. Our research has shown that growing unmet need is the primary reason attending and graduating from college is increasingly unattainable – especially for underserved and nontraditional students. 

A centralized student financial aid program with a streamlined application process would bring a level of clarity and reliability that students deserve. 

A move toward a centralized program with a dedicated – and significant – source of investment would get Massachusetts on track to what should be the goal: providing students with access to public higher education without them needing to go into debt. 

For decades, higher education – especially public higher ed – has been the catalyst for economic mobility. We fear that maintaining the status quo will close that window of opportunity to entire generations of Massachusetts students. 

Thank you again for this opportunity. We hope this is just the beginning of these discussions on how Massachusetts can reinvest in its institutions and provide students in need with the support to realize their dreams of higher education and all it entails.