Photograph of Higher Education Representative Jeffrey Roy
By Madison Medeiros
Signs reading “Fund Our Future”, “Invest In Schools and Colleges” and “Debt Free Future” scattered the halls of the Massachusetts State House on Thursday, March 21.
Students, teachers, activists and organizations pushing for more public education funding flocked to Beacon Hill for Higher Education Advocacy Day.
The event was hosted by the Fund Our Future Coalition and the Public Higher Education Network (PHENOM), two organizations uniting the activism of students, parents, professors, community members, state representatives and more.
24 out of the 29 campuses across the commonwealth that compose the Public Higher Education system attended, all in support of two major bills that are aimed to alleviate college debt: the Fund Our Future Cherish Act (S741/H1214) and Debt Free Future Act (S744/H1221).
Literature on each proposed bill was distributed, along with questions for State Senators and State Representatives and templates asking for their support. A panel of student ambassadors, PHENOM members, college alumni and members of the MA Teachers Association spoke, followed by a rally around the second level floor.
“The time is now,” PHENOM Executive Director Zac Bears said to the crowd. “We can’t wait another year—or even one more semester.”
MA public college tuition and fees are now among the highest in the country. According to PHENOM, the average University of Massachusetts Amherst student graduates with over $30,000 in student debt and the average state university graduate leaves with over $25,000 in student debt.
“These are our schools and universities and we are here to take them back,” said President of the MA Teachers Association Merrie Najimy, who graduated debt-free due to attending public colleges and universities. “You can’t do that anymore.”
The Fund Our Future Cherish Act would result in $574 million dollars in additional funding for public higher education, establish a fair and adequate minimum funding level for public higher education and freeze tuition and fees for five years.
The Debt Free Future Act would be a guaranteed access to free public higher education as a right for all MA residents. To be eligible, students would need to be a MA resident or have attained a high school diploma or its equivalent in the commonwealth; be admitted to and enrolled full-time or part-time in a MA public college or university or other public certificate, vocational or other adult education program and maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or above.
With the number of students attending college growing substantially, so has the need for financial assistance.
“There are so many more voices you’re advocating for,” said State Representative and former PHENOM Director Natalie Higgins. “It’s your personal stories that will move [these bills] forward. Tell your student debt stories.”
Higgins grew up in a working-class family as a working-class student. She is a first-generation college graduate and relates to those who must work harder to make ends meet.
The increasing burden of costs has caused students to work demanding job hours, forgo future plans and aspirations due to financial expenses and ultimately alter their life goals and pursuits because they cannot otherwise afford it. These are just a few obstacles that the college representatives shined light on.
Attendees were given the opportunity to meet with their state legislators directly. Although Senator Julian Cyr, representing Cape Cod and Islands, was out of the office, his Constituent Services and Operations Coordinator Lauren Gottlieb, confirmed Senator Cyr’s support of both bills and his position as a co-sponsor.
“We will create a better future,” said Massachusetts College of Art and Design Student Camilla Bohan Insaurralde, who also works multiple jobs to afford schooling. “It’s all of us or none of us.”
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education will hold a hearing on the Cherish Act on Tuesday, April 30 at the State House. PHENOM encourages all educational activists to attend.