Students ready to rally in Harrisburg in push for state university funding

 Hundreds of students are expected to rally Monday  in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg to press Pennsylvania legislators on funding for  state universities. (AP file photo)

Hundreds of students are expected to rally Monday in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg to press Pennsylvania legislators on funding for state universities. (AP file photo)

Pennsylvania Lawmakers entering the Capitol Rotunda Monday will be greeted with signs urging “Don’t Be Nuts, Restore the Cuts” and advising “Major Key: Quality Education Isn’t Free.”

Approximately 300 college students and faculty from the 14 universities that make up the State System of Higher Education will be taking part in a rally in Harrisburg.

The system’s faculty union is hosting the event to raise awareness about state university funding.

The union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, is providing free transportation and lunches to participants as they press lawmakers to restore cuts to higher ed.

Kenneth Mash, union president, said the system’s state funding was reduced five years ago and has not increased since. That’s made it increasingly difficult to provide students with affordable, quality public education in Pennsylvania.

“At a time when there are a lot of groups out there who need funds, it’s important for our students to be heard, for our universities to be heard,” he said. “It’s no longer acceptable for our students to be increasingly in debt or for families to be closed out of a college education.”

He said the goal is to raise awareness ahead of Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address on Tuesday.

Wolf proposed restoring the system’s funding to 2011 levels in his budget that was not approved by legislators, who also put an increased funding amount in their budget proposal.

“We’re fortunate because the governor had said he wants to increase the amount of funds to the universities. We’re fortunate because the Legislature has said they had put in for an increased amount,” Mash said. “So our goal is to make sure that that in fact happens and we get on a path to fair funding for the universities.”

The system’s current state aid is identical to levels it received in the late 1990s, but the system serves 16 percent more students and has made significant budget cuts.

“We’ve seen hundreds of programs being cut. We’ve seen staff at the universities being reduced,” Mash said. “We’ve seen tuition going up and fees going up for our students. We’ve seen basic maintenance being delayed. This is not a path that we can continue on.”

Kinjal Shah, a West Chester University sophomore, is going to the rally because she wants to have a voice in the decisions legislators are making about university funding.

“If students don’t pay attention to these kinds of issues, then our voices will never be heard,” the 19-year-old said. “This is the only time we have a real chance to make a real difference at the state level.”

The English major is also the news editor of the university’s newspaper and is covering the event to help raise awareness across campus.

“It’s something that not as many students know about and something more students need to know,” the Bucks County native said. “Also, this is a really important thing that prospective students need to know — that there’s a potential of the tuition increasing because that loses a lot of the appeal.”

The rally, dubbed “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail,” was motivated in part by students.

Shippensburg senior Olivia Straka wanted to do something while watching her fellow students struggle to pay rising tuition bills and seeing some of them dropping out.

So the political science major began encouraging other students to take their stories right to lawmakers.

“I think to show the legislature when college students do show up they start to realize, ‘OK, this may actually be an issue,'” she said. “If the students are here that has a bit more of an impact than if it’s just faculty and administration.”

Straka said students choose state-owned schools because they’re affordable, but that’s changing.

“Three years ago I had that, to a certain extent. It has changed dramatically,” the Lebanon, Pennsylvania, native said. “My tuition has increased just in these four years that I’ve been here. I’m lucky enough to be able to continue with my education, but I know numerous students that have had to drop out.”

In the past four years, total costs at Shippensburg — including tuition, room, board and fees — went up 27 percent.

Pennsylvania used to supply 65 percent of the cost of attendance at state system universities, but now only covers 25 percent. Tuition makes up the difference.

Rally organizers expect several hundred attendees, including support from legislators, for the noon event.

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