Students head to State House, push for more public higher education funding

By Marie MacCune

(Andy Otto/Flickr)
(Andy Otto/Flickr)

More than 300 students will head to the Massachusetts State House Wednesday to lobby their legislators as part of Public Higher Education Advocacy Day. Lobbyists will be pushing for increased funding for Massachusetts public colleges and universities in the FY16 budget.

The event is organized in large part by PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.

According to the Public Education Summit Group Budget Proposal FY16, there are two asks dealing with University of Massachusetts funding.

The first is an increase of $33.7 million in funding, dependent on the continuation of the tuition freeze. If tuition is set to go up, the second ask is for an increase of $59.7 million.

FY15 marked the second year in a row that the University received funding to freeze tuition and fees for in-state students.

Natalie Higgins, executive director of PHENOM, said she is optimistic about securing their asks.

She explained that PHENOM and Advocacy Day are advocating in a new political environment, having never existed under a Republican administration.

“We really hope Gov. Baker understands what a great investment public higher education is,” she said. “Republican governors have understood this in the past.”

She cited the establishment of the John and Abigail Adams tuition waiver under former Gov. Mitt Romney.

This year, PHENOM has collaborated with the Student Government Association, The Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) and MASSPIRG on the UMass campus in order to organize students. The University is expected to send around 80 students and will be the largest contingent at the State House.

Chairwoman of the Diversity and Student Engagement committee Emily O’Neill spoke about the SGA’s role in preparing for Advocacy Day.

Through her and her committee, SGA worked to prepare potential student lobbyists through a teach-in held last Tuesday.

“I think that the additional training that we gave this year and the extra information that was provided to students … will mean they will be able to really effectively lobby their legislators,” O’Neill said. “And hopefully legislators will be receptive to a huge group of state university students coming in and saying, ‘Hi, we all live in your district and we all really need free public higher (education).’”

She added: “Our official demands are free public higher education. There is a question of whether UMass is truly public if it is not accessible and affordable for all.”

O’Neil estimated there will be 30 SGA members lobbying Wednesday. Lucas Gutterman, the higher education campaign coordinator and state board treasurer for MASSPIRG, also cited the importance of the teach-in training in preparing students for Advocacy Day.

He said the motivation behind the additional training was that they wanted students to feel like “they were actually having an impact.”

According to Gutterman, “…the inspiration for MASSPIRG getting involved in Advocacy Day was broadening that (SGA participant) base to people who wouldn’t typically think this is something they would go to. So that people outside the SGA bubble would know about Advocacy Day and would feel comfortable and confident.”

Filipe Carvalho, the access and affordability director for CEPA, also worked to organize UMass students.

For Carvalho, the work had personal motivation as well.

“I feel that education is a right and so it should be free and accessible for everyone who wants it,” Carvalho said.

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.