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Rally Demands Reasonable Reform

By Samantha VanSchoick
On October 21, 2011

Shouts for "Free Pizza!" resonated throughout the Alexander Twilight Theatre Lobby during a rally for higher education Thursday, offering a slice for a signature. 

A petition that addressed the Vermont Legislature calling for "reasonable, incremental increases in state funding for the Vermont State Colleges in order to maintain high quality education and minimize student debt" was passed around the lobby for the Lyndon State College community to sign. Over a 100 names lined the pages of the petition, but only about 52 students, faculty, and staff stayed to listen to the speeches. 
However, those who did not disappear after 15 pizzas, which were purchased by the Faculty Union, were devoured believed in the importance of the event. Though doubtful about the immediate benefits of the rally, Shera Howe, a junior majoring in English, thought student presence was important. "The more people that are standing around, the more people that are likely to look, the more likely people will sign the petition."   
Natural science professor Michael Miller would agree. "We need to send a resounding message to the community and the public at large that the state colleges are in dire need of help and they need it now. Anything that helps get the message out, by its own accord, is a success."
Education professor Timothy Sturm began the rally by asking the audience the significance of three numbers: 22, 30, 52. 
The numbers refer to the average college student graduating at age 22; having a 30-year student loan to pay off and not finishing payments on that loan until age 52. Sturm said that loans used to be for 10 years and the student's education would be paid off by age 32.
"Imagine that a person graduates from college and ends up at 52 having paid student loans for over half of their life," he said. "We are bound and determined to strike a better balance."
Someone who has felt the economic pressure is Jennifer Adams, a senior psychology and human services major.
"I planned to attend graduate school, but that may no longer be financially possible for me," she said. "I have two children and I have to save for their college educations while trying to pay for mine."
She sees the rally as a step in the right direction.
"This issue needs attention," she said. "There are people who can't even graduate because they can't afford it."
Student Government Association President Nick Russo focused on how the issue is affecting the school.
"Out of 719 students who filled out an exit interview survey, 250 of them indicated that financial concerns were among their primary reasons for leaving LSC," he said. "It would be nice if [the state] gave more money from the University of Vermont to the VSC schools because they are geared more towards your modest income students who want access to higher education."
State Senator Joe Benning, an LSC graduate, attended the rally and addressed the fact that Vermont is ranked at the bottom of state funding for education.
"Through the years the legislature has not considered this to be a top priority, that's only going to change if we get more people in the legislature that want to make it a top priority," he said. "It is not in Vermont's best interest to be last on that list."
Sturm concurred that state funding is drying up.
"In 1962, 46 percent of the operating budget was dedicated to higher education," he said. "It is now 18.7 percent. If you do the arithmetic it is about a one percent decrease per year."
Benning says that part of the reason the VSC schools receive less funding is due to their lack of representation in the legislature.
"Not only have they affected the funding, but as you change those dynamics, you can change the numbers," he said.
The Vermont senate has 10 senators that are affiliated with the VSC and five senators who are affiliated with UVM.  The Vermont house has 37 representatives affiliated with UVM and 16 representatives affiliated with the VSC. These affiliations mean that the senator or representative is an alumni of, has taught at, has children who attend, or has served on the board of trustees for UVM or a VSC school.  
"UVM made a critical mistake this year with its severance package to their outgoing president and that has soured a lot of people in the legislature about what kind of funding UVM gets," Benning said. "But its going to take a lot more than just one president getting a whopping big golden parachute on his way out the door to change things."
The petition is still available for signatures. Banners are hanging in the science wing hallway. Sturm hopes to get 1,000 supporters. He had a message to students who did not attend the rally. 
"This should matter to you. It's your life and it's important."
Rallies were also held at Castleton State College and Johnson State College. 

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