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April 02, 2015

On Thursday at the University of Massachusetts Boston, higher education leaders met with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to discuss ways to control the cost of college and help students graduate with less debt. WGBH's Kirk Carapezza was there:

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland also attended yesterday's event. Listen to Kirk's extended interview with him and Senator Warren. 

Hundreds of students filled a massive ballroom on the UMass Boston campus, many of them hoping to tell Warren about how they’re struggling to pay for college.

It was standing room only and even Warren seemed surprised by the turnout.

“We have a high-class problem and that is too many people who can’t even make it into the room,” Warren said, urging students to move closer to the stage.

The event was run like a congressional committee hearing: students gave public testimony, and then Warren asked them personal questions.

“How has the amount of debt that you've had to take on changed your post-graduation plans?,” Warren asked Kathleen Kelleher, a senior at UMass.

“Originally I planned on going straight to grad school and then going straight to a high school or middle school to work,” Kelleher responded. “Now, I'm just like, 'How long can I put it off but still be relevant?'"

Kelleher wants to go into teaching. The 21-year-old from Beverly is the youngest of three. After the hearing, she said that she started college four years ago at a small private school in Pennsylvania. Then her mom was laid off.

"I decided financially and morally and every way possible, I would do better at UMass Boston so I transferred here," Kelleher said.

Still, she expects to graduate in May with $27,000 in student loans. She says taking out those loans was necessary.

"I knew that a college education isn't just a piece of paper, it's a key to your future," Kellher said.

Warren has heard a lot of stories similar to Kelleher's. And she says her primary mission is to convince Congress to get serious about the student debt crisis.

"I think the problem is in Washington,” Warren said, in an interview before the event. “The problem isn't across this country. People want to see us make higher education affordable and available not just to some of our kids but to all of our kids."

To do that, Warren says the U.S. should lower interest rates on student loans. She's filed a bill to do that but it's stalled in the Republican-led Congress.

"America is struggling with this,” Warren said. “The student loan debt burden is holding back young people from doing the things we'd expect them to do in this economy: Buying homes. Buying cars. Starting small businesses."

Researchers at the Brookings Institution and at other think tanks cast doubt on the notion of a student debt crisis. They argue that debt loads aren't as bad as politicians like Senator Warren make them out to be.

Related: Is Student Loan Debt Really Dragging Down the Economy?

“You know it’s not that bad unless you’re the one trying to pay the bill on it,” Warren said. “There is $1.3 trillion dollars outstanding in student loan debt right now. Forty million Americans owe student loans.”

Warren says states need to better fund public universities and colleges need to better control costs. But unless Congress acts, she warns the number of struggling students like Kathleen Kelleher will go up year after year.

A report from the Brookings Institution released in June found the student debt crisis is overblown. Listen to WGBH's On Campus interview with researcher Beth Akers:

higher ed, confronting costs, college costs, tuition, Umass, senator warren

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