Students lobby the State House for increased investment in education

By Keriann ORiordan

A crowd of nearly 1,000 packed the State House in Boston Thursday, hoping to lobby legislators for more investment in public higher education.

Wearing school colors to represent their universities, students met in the Gardner Auditorium in support of Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to increase funding for public universities in the Bay State by 5 percent. Students, faculty and staff in attendance from the five University of Massachusetts campuses spoke about the problem of spiraling educational costs and decreasing financial aid available to students.

Elizabeth Asefa, a public health major at UMass who is also running for president of the Student Government Association, said she attended due to lack of funding for academic departments.

“It really hit home for me when one of my professors told me she couldn’t come back next semester because of funding reasons,” said the junior.

Upon arriving at the State House, attendees congregated and filled the Gardner Auditorium. State Rep. Tom Sannicandro complimented the rally-goers for their presence, stating that “voices make it easier to do our job.”

Sannicandro is co-chair of the Higher Education Committee. Students applauded and cheered in support of his words.

Michael Moore, Senate co-chair of the Higher Education Committee, said the challenge faced by lawmakers is finding a way to provide public higher education for all.

Organizers from the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) passed out to members of the crowd a list of the  “top 10 reasons for Massachusetts to invest in public higher education.” The pamphlet stated that “two-thirds of Massachusetts high school graduates who attend college in state go to a public college or university. We need these schools to be accessible to the largest possible number of Massachusetts residents to provide the best possible education, and be designed to help students graduate and succeed.”

State Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland drew a large rise out of the crowd when he said “we need low cost, affordable, high class education.”

He also said that in this economy, legislators are staring down a difficult path in seeking revenue sources to improve funding for all programs, higher education included. Following comments by legislators to the attendees in the auditorium, students separated into groups to meet with their local representatives.

Later, the participants from each school individually reviewed the day’s results. While talking about his views on state funding, David Bettencourt, a history major at UMass, expressed his displeasure with what he viewed as a legislative emphasis on science and technology spending.

“I don’t like that they’re putting all the funding toward science, there are other important things,” he said.

Sophia Zaman – a political science and women, gender and sexuality double major at UMass – said she showed up to voice her support for public higher education in the spirit of the Morrill Acts, which established many state universities nationwide in 1862.

“This year was the 150th anniversary of the [Morrill] Acts,” she said. “Lobby Day honors that legacy. We need to hold our legislators accountable, because education is a public good.”

Keri Ann O’Riordan can be reached at [email protected]