By Katharine Webster
Offer a wider range of meal plans, including low-cost options. Let commuter students pay their parking bills in monthly installments. Increase the state budget for public colleges and universities. Educate families and students about financial aid and loan forgiveness programs. Require all first-year and transfer students to take a time management class.
Those were just a few of the suggestions that 70 students in two sections of an introductory sociology class, Social Problems, discussed with state legislators and university administrators at a “Debt-Free College Town Hall” last month.
Thalita Campelo, a sophomore majoring in international business, shared her personal experience with the crowd that gathered at Allen House. Although she works 25 to 30 hours a week and her father got a second job to help her pay for college, she still had to take out sizable loans.
“We’re extremely worried about the amount of debt,” she said.
Lecturer Thomas Piñeros-Shields, who introduced the class at UMass Lowell several years ago, says that at other colleges, Social Problems is generally taught as a survey course covering a variety of societal challenges such as terrorism, racism, sexual assault, climate change and drug abuse.
But Piñeros-Shields takes a different approach. He has the students choose an issue close to their own experience. Then, working in teams, they research the problem and come up with possible solutions. The goal is for students to understand how to influence public policy.
“I worry about how disenchanted the millennial generation is with politics,” Piñeros-Shields says. “I don’t want them to be so cynical that they completely disengage.”
This past semester, the students decided to tackle higher education, with most teams focusing on factors that contribute to the cost of college. Piñeros-Shields then invited Sydney Little, organizing director for PHENOM – the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, an advocacy organization that campaigns for debt-free public higher education – to help them figure out how they might translate their findings into action.
“I want students to understand how their lives relate to history and to social structures,” Piñeros-Shields says. “I want them to understand that if they’re in debt, it’s not because they’re not working hard enough.”
John Francis, a junior business major, says he enjoyed the class, which satisfies the social sciences requirement for the core curriculum as well as the “Essential Learning Outcome” for social responsibility and ethics.
“I’m interested in social problems, so I thought it would be interesting to learn what happens in the real world,” he says.
Piñeros-Shields had originally planned to have students present their findings to just two people: state Rep. Natalie Higgins, who serves on the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and PHENOM’s executive director, Zac Bears.
But the “town hall” grew when some students invited university administrators to participate.
Vice Provost for Student Success Julie Nash, Dean of Academic Services Kerry Donohoe and Christine Robbins and Teresa Jardon from Financial Aid came and responded to student questions and concerns. State Rep. Thomas Golden, a Democrat representing Lowell and Chelmsford, also stopped by for an hour to listen.
“I feel that UMass Lowell does a great job of advocating for its students,” says Derek Lynch, a sophomore honors student double-majoring in political science and sociology. “It was wonderful to see and hear from administrators who care as much about this problem of student debt as we do.”
After a presentation on state contributions to higher education, Donohoe urged the students to keep working to make public higher education more affordable and accessible to all.
“I commend you for bringing this up and thinking so much about it,” she said. “I hope it has really incited in you a passion – and that you all talk about it with your peers and mobilize, because this is a critical 21st century issue.”