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Sixth annual Advocacy Day set to take place March 1

Collegian file photo

The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) will host the sixth annual Advocacy Day at the Massachusetts State House in Boston Wednesday, March 1.

The day consists of students and faculty advocating for public higher education. Students and faculty of the University of Massachusetts are encouraged to attend.

Zac Bears, executive director of PHENOM, explained some of the main points that will be addressed at Advocacy Day, including that legislatures commit to a debt-free future, increase investments in faculty and campuses of public higher education institutions and protect immigrant students.

The Student Government Association and Student Affairs and Campus Life are funding transportation, according to Bears.

“We are very thankful, because we think the biggest thing here is the need to get institutional support,” Bears said.

Attendees will advocate for a tuition and fee freeze, which will keep tuition and fees at a set amount for a specified number of years.

Attendees will also rally for a Finish Line Grant, which would cover the cost of tuition and fees for one year for students struggling to complete their degrees at public colleges and universities.

“[We’re] asking for people to commit to going debt-free, that adjunct or non-tenure track faculty, which are called lecturers here, making sure that they have pay parity,” Bears said. “And we’re also asking to protect immigrant students in the communities.”

All of these requests will be explained in papers, a short video and speeches before the event, according to Bears.

Maija Hall, a senior sociology major and policy and legislation coordinator for the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, has been in charge of coordinating recruitment efforts in anticipation of the event. She argued that while change would not happen immediately, the goals of the event were to make legislators aware of PHENOM’s concerns.

“[The] point of Advocacy Day is for state legislatures to know that there are constituents who care about higher education and care about rebuilding the past,” Hall said.

According to Bears, PHENOM had big successes with Advocacy Day in 2013.

That year, the UMass President, Robert Caret, worked with the higher education community and former Governor Deval Patrick to establish a policy that would increase funding from the state so that it would provide half the costs of tuition and fees, with students and their families providing the other half.

“Advocacy Day really pushed the idea of a 50/50 tuition and fee kind of split between the state and the students, and that was a huge win in 2013, but that ended last year,” Bears said.

Bears added, “In December, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center really started to report on the state of higher education in Massachusetts in 16 charts, and that shows that the state has cut funding by 31 percent per student over the past 15 years, and directly related to that, student tuition and fees have doubled across the system. The data and the trends are clear. The state has massively disinvested from public higher education, and that means for a lot of people, getting a high education isn’t available to them.”

Bears explained that as a result of rising higher education fees, in addition to the 10 to 20 years after college in which people find themselves deeply in debt, there has been an increase in hunger and homelessness around college campuses.

“I hear stories every day of students who are basically saying ‘I can either choose to buy food or pay my tuition bill’ and a lot of them choose to pay their tuition bill,” Bears said.

Andrea Nyamekye, a senior natural resources conversation major and campaign and advocacy coordinator for CEPA, explained that there are currently a little over 250 students signed up to attend the event.

She will be attending Advocacy Day for the first time this year and has been involved with much of the planning of the 2017 event.

“I have been on the Advocacy Day working group meetings,” Nyamekye said. “So that happens every Thursday, and that’s pretty much where we plan the logistical stuff of the transportation, and then I have also been planning the week of action, which just started [Tuesday] and that’s pretty much planning all of the events to really mobilize students to come to Advocacy Day.”

“I really hope that our representatives listen to us and put pressure on Governor Baker to allocate more funding for higher education, because one of the huge things when it comes to tuition and fees is that, the more we lose funding for this university, then the brunt of the money falls on the students,” Nyamekye said.

“And that’s why you have those tuition and fee increases, because the money can’t come from anywhere else.”

Tyler Barron, UMass alumnus and community organizer at PHENOM who attended Advocacy Day two years before, said that from past experience he feels that “people who go have a sense of empowerment.”

“I think I have a sort of funny view of the whole thing, the State House is sort of a strange place for me, it seems overly formal, but I think something I’ve appreciated from it is being able to more confidently talk to my legislators, call them up and really have a conversation, and not feel like what I was doing was completely insignificant,” said Barron.

Advocacy Day events will run from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. There will be buses to transport people from UMass to the State House for free, and attendance will also make for an excused absence from classes that day. Students are encouraged to register by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Hayley Johnson can be reached at hkjohnson@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @hayleyk_johnson.

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