Students back higher education money

BOSTON – Public university students from around the state descended on the Statehouse Wednesday in support of increased higher education funding in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“This is not just a debate about funding. This is a debate about whether working-class families are entitled to an affordable education without compromising the quality of our education due to insufficient state support,” said Melissa Edberg, a Worcester State University senior and chairwoman of the state’s Board of Higher Education student advisory council.

The event, led by the State University Council of Presidents, a committee of the commonwealth’s nine state university presidents, gave Massachusetts public university students the opportunity to lobby for increased financial support.

“For our governor: this year, your budget, not your rhetoric, is your ultimate message to the citizens who you represent,” Edberg said. “We want better resources and we want better academics.”

In his budget proposal, Gov. Charlie Baker allocated $1.2 billion for state universities, including $2.5 million for state university incentive grants. However, none of the proposed funds would go toward the mandatory faculty salary increases.

Because no collective bargaining funding was provided for state universities in the 2016 budget, this lack of funding would leave state universities with a deficit they must fill.

Beau Pirrone, 21, a senior at the Massachusetts College of Arts and Design in Boston, attended the student event to push legislators to support an increase in the state internship incentive budget and the 2016 and 2017 collective bargaining funding.

“Education is so invaluable and so inaccessible to so many people,” said Pirrone, a South Hadley resident who has been self-supporting since graduating from high school. “Having an education system that can support people like me (and those who are) worse off than I am is incredibly important. Our generation is going to be the next workforce, the next leaders. We need to support them.”

Rep. Tom C. Sannicandro, D-Ashland, chairman of the joint committee on higher education, said in a prepared statement that investments in education are “vital to the future success and strength of our state” and “have kept Massachusetts ahead of the nation with a low unemployment rate, high percentage of its workforce holding college degrees, and high average salary.”

Sannicandro said that increasing scholarship opportunities and direct investment in state universities and working to increasing the graduation rate of those at-risk “will keep our economy strong and ensure the innovation economy continues to grow in Massachusetts now and into the future.”

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, whose district includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said convincing the Legislature to pass adequate funding for public higher education has been “a constant struggle.”

Funding “has gone down in the last thirty years dramatically,” Story said. “Now the chancellors have to spend time doing private fundraising, which they did not used to have to do. They could spend their time on running the university or the college.”

Story said the decrease results from the Legislature’s hesitation to raise taxes in a time when the state has also needed money for so many other things.

“Public higher education is the cornerstone of democracy,” she said. “We sometimes take it for granted, but it is extremely important. It is a place where someone who is smart, who doesn’t have a lot of resources (or) money can get a first-class education and then become a leading member of society based on the (public) education that they received.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 7,2016.

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