Sep 27, 2007

Students rally to protest tuition increases

LANSING – It looked more like a pep rally or a tailgate party Wednesday as hundreds of students representing all of Michigan’s 15 publicly financed colleges and university rallied in front of the Capitol steps to protest the increase in tuition and to urge the Legislature to increase funding for higher education.

The large crowd decked out in school colors carried signs, cheered and chanted. Gabriel Pendas, President of the United States Student Association, fired the crowd up and encouraged them to register to vote with the registration materials that were on hand, and he also urged them to lobby for a new law that gives students a tax break on their student loan payment for students who graduate from Michigan colleges and universities and live and work in the state following graduation. Maine just passed the bill this summer.

“This is democracy right here,” he said. “This is what democracy looks like right here; people who are engaged in the process.”

Despite last-minute budget negotiations going on to save the state government from a shutdown on Monday, there were Legislators on hand to address the students.

“As you stand out on the Capitol lawn you are our future,” said Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor. “Investing in your education is investing in Michigan.”

In May the state had to make up an $800 million deficit from the current year budget that ends on Sunday, and included in one of the one-time fixes was a delay in paying the schools $160 million. That led to tuition hikes that averaged 11 percent and some incoming students will see increases as high as 21 percent. Students demanded the delayed payment be made to the schools and demanded increases in funding for colleges and universities.

The state is facing a $1.8 million budget deficit in the budget that begins Monday. However, Republicans refuse to vote for a tax increase even though many admit publicly it is required to balance the budget, and Democrats refuse to vote for cuts until Republicans vote for a tax increase.

“We’re not her to deliver a partisan message because proper funding of higher education is not a partisan issue,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek. “This affects both Democrats and Republicans.”

Michigan wants to be a leader in life sciences, alternative energy, advanced automotive manufacturing and homeland security through the Governor’s 21st Century Jobs Fund, but many believe that will require investment in education and other areas. Much of the opposition to the tax increase is because of a mistaken belief that Michigan is a high tax state, and Rep. Pam Byrnes, D-Chelsea, said the states with the lowest tax rate are also the states with the lowest wages.

“I am so glad you are here; the timing could not be better,” Byrnes said. “Minnesota has one of the highest tax rates in the country, but they also have the highest graduation rates for both high school and college.
“That’s where the jobs and companies are going,” she said.

But the tuition hikes present unique problems to students who must find more money to pay for school or drop out, which is happening all too often as college becomes less and less affordable to poor and middle class students. Jason Davis, a student leader at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said he has had to work 40 hours a week since he was a sophomore in high school to pay for college, and he has had to work up to 46 hours a week to pay for the tuition increases.

“This is an issue that had not been addressed for far too long,” he said. “Year after year the tuition increases, and I have to work more, which means less time for studying.”

Christopher Allen, a medial student at Wayne State University School of Medicine, said he had $20,000 in school loan debt when he began medial school, and that debt is contributing to a shortage of general practice doctors.

“When we have high debt we have people go into higher specialties that bring in higher income to pay that debt,” he said. “That creates a shortage of primary care physicians.”

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