AMHERST — If legislators didn’t hear their words during testimony about higher education funding Wednesday afternoon on the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus, they certainly saw their props.
UMass student Erika Civitrese wore a piece of paper around her neck with the number $38,851 written on it as she told her personal story of the effects of student debt on her family. The figure on the paper represented how much she borrowed in private loans to attend UMass.
“My family and I worry daily about how we are going to pay them (loans) off, let alone how we will send my 15-year-old sister through college in a few years when, at this rate, tuition will be sky high,” Civitarese said.
Civitarese, who will graduate in May, said she began working 25 to 35 hours a week when she was 15 to save for college and help her family with bills.
She and other students brought a straightforward message to members of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means — the Legislature should provide full funding for the state’s 29 public colleges and universities in order to stop tuition and fee increases.
“The time is really now for Massachusetts to become a leading force in higher education,” Civitarese said.
In January, Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled his budget proposal for fiscal 2018, which would provide a $10.3 million increase to higher education over the current year. Baker proposes $516 million for UMass, $252 million to state universities and $278 million to community colleges.
But those figures are short of the amounts education officials say they need to fund costs. State universities are asking for $270 million, UMass for $555 million and community colleges $290 million.
Worry that the difference will be passed on to students in the form of tuition hikes for fiscal 2018 stoked the call to action for some UMass students Wednesday, as protesters gathered outside of the Old Chapel and called for the tuition freeze.
Inside the chapel, four speakers, including Civitarese, gave testimony to five committee members.
The committee will decide on a budget over the next three months, explained Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, or PHENOM.
Bears, who graduated in the spring with $30,000 in debt, believes that if the Legislature fully funds universities and colleges, UMass trustees and president will be able to freeze tuition for next school year. Other testimony
In addition to Civitarese, who represented the Center for Education Policy Advocacy, UMass student Nat Roosa and North Shore Community College student Andrew Lawson testified Wednesday.
Roosa won’t graduate from UMass until 2019, but is already concerned about debt. Roosa, whose family income is double the median in Massachusetts, will still graduate with $20,000 of debt.
“Higher education is still unaffordable, even for people who might be considered wealthy by financial standards,” said Roosa, who represented the statewide organization Fair Shot for All.
Lawson began his college career at UMass, but transferred to North Shore Community College when he realized that tuition was too steep. After his freshman year at UMass, he owed $6,000 out-of-pocket, after financial aid and scholarships were taken into consideration.
At North Shore, Lawson worked full time while attending school as a full-time student. Every morning, he would wake up at 7 to start his busy day at 8. Between school and work, Lawson wouldn’t get home until 11 p.m. From there, he would tackle homework assignments, getting very little sleep at night.
“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life,” he said.
Balancing both a full-time job and a full-time academic schedule was a challenge. “Either work is going to suffer, or school is going to suffer,” he remembers thinking.
Lawson will graduate this spring with his associate’s degree. “I don’t lose hope,” he said. “That’s why I come to things like this.”
Like Lawson, Bears believes that students can make a change. Bears advocates that college should be affordable and achievable for everyone, even working people.
“If we’re not doing that, we’re leaving people behind,” he said.
If Bears continues on his current plan to pay off his college debt, he expects five or six years to pass before he is debt-free. Like many college graduates, he will continue to slowly chip away at it.
Joshua Brown, a current UMass senior, watched the testimony from the crowd. During his time at UMass, Brown had to take a year off from college to save up for tuition.
He summed up the thoughts of most protesters and students in the room: “Education is a right.”