By Logan Hullinger
HARRISBURG — Students and faculty from all 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities struggled to fit onto the Capitol rotunda stairs on Thursday. But they had no trouble amplifying their message throughout its halls.That message?
Increase funding for higher education.
On Feb. 6, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a 2018-2019 budget to the General Assembly. Among its provisions was a $15 million increase in higher education spending for PASSHE schools.
On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the budget. Right after giving closing remarks at the committee hearing, PASSHE interim Chancellor Karen M. Whitney went straight to the student-rally podium.
She was cheered on by nearly 200 students and faculty members from across the state system.
“Investment in the 14 State System universities is an investment in the success of every Pennsylvanian,” she said. “It’s important, and now is the time. Our future, your future and the future of our students depends on our longstanding partnership with the commonwealth and the continued investment in our universities.”
Indiana University of Pennsylvania brought more than students. It was the only PASSHE school to include members of the statewide faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, or APSCUF.
Michele R. Papakie, a union officer and chairwoman of the IUP Public Relations and Journalism Department, spoke on behalf of IUP’s chapter.
“Back in 1993, the state was funding 63 percent, or roughly two-thirds of my education, and it still took me 15 years to pay off my student loans,” she said. “I could guess that students today, who are only benefiting from one-third of the appropriations than what I received, will be paying off their student loans for 30 years unless our state invests more in higher education.”
Papakie cited her experience as an alumna of IUP and California University of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve experienced PASSHE from a variety of vantage points,” she said. “I was a student, I’m an alumna, I was a manager CALU, I’m an associate professor and department chairwoman, I serve on APSCUF’s state executive council, I’m an adult, and I’m a small business owner. I’m a proud product of the state system. And today I’m here to produce future proud products of the state system.”
IUP students also spoke.
“I think it’s really important that we have students and faculty come represent IUP so we can make better programs and possible lower tuition,” David C. Laughead, an IUP freshman political science major, said in an interview. “I think what we’re doing can make a change, especially if we can talk face-to-face with lawmakers and show how passionate we are.”
Brian S. Swatt, president of the IUP Student Government Association; Laurie A Carter, president of Shippensburg University, and Matt Steck, a Shippensburg alumnus and lobbyist for Greenlee Partners in Harrisburg, spoke in support of increased funding for PASSHE schools.
Swatt emphasized affordability.
“My story is representative of a lot of our students here and across the Commonwealth — the students that PASSHE serves,” he said from the podium. “As a self-financed student, affordability was at the forefront of my college selective process, as well as a school with a high quality education and opportunities to succeed. Going to IUP, a State System institution, was the best decision of my life.”
THE THURSDAY RALLY coincided with Pennsylvania Promise, a recent $1 billion proposal to provide free or affordable tuition to Pennsylvania high school students.
The Keystone Research Center and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, both nonpartisan, released the proposal on Jan. 23. Among its provisions are free two-year tuition for any recent Pennsylvania high school graduate and free four-year tuition and fees for any graduate with a family income of less than or equal to $110,000 annually. Both incentives only apply to PASSHE schools.
In addition to incentives for PASSHE schools, the proposal would provide grants over a four-year period ranging from $2,000 up to $11,000, depending on family income, for students seeking admission into a state-related university. Adults without a college degree would also be offered free tuition, with preference given those seeking an in-demand trade.
However, the proposal’s estimated $1 billion price tag costs about half the amount of last year’s state-budget shortfall and proposes the same revenue-raising methods opposed by majority Republicans, including raising income taxes and creating a severance tax for gas and energy companies.
The Pennsylvania Promise proposal has yet to be attached to legislation or to be supported by a member of the General Assembly.
Neither state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, nor state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, responded to phone calls on Tuesday and Wednesday seeking comment.
Logan R. Hullinger, a senior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a staff reporter for The HawkEye, is from Clarion. He may be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu