Penn State Students Rally against High Tuition: 'Without a Vision, the People Perish'
Dozens of Penn State students marched and chanted Tuesday afternoon through the University Park campus, then rallied for more than an hour in front of Old Main.
Their message: They want lower tuition, and they want university, state and federal officials to take action -- now.
"Without a vision, the people perish," said University Park Undergraduate Association President Christian Ragland, addressing a crowd estimated at roughly 100 people outside Old Main. He said he was speaking as a student, not in his official, elected capacity.
Ragland said the gathering was not a declaration of "I hate Penn State" or "I hate (university President) Graham Spanier," but rather an expression of solidarity meant to amplify the collective student voice. He said the assembled group had started a path of activism.
More than 20 people spoke at the Old Main rally, where a few university police officers stood outside the building's front entrance. Most speakers were Penn State students and delivered remarks without notes. A couple university faculty members spoke, too.
Some speakers broke down in emotion as they recounted personal hardships they attributed to the university's escalating tuition rates. At least two said that they would leave college with some $100,000 in debt. And several issued scathing criticism of the university administration, arguing that Penn State has strayed too far from its working-class roots as a land-grant institution; recruits students without delivering adequate financial assistance; spends too much money on facilities; and doesn't care enough about its students.
The crowd called a few times for administrators to come outside and speak to the assembled. Vice President for Administration Thomas Poole, Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims and Director of Public Information Lisa Powers did come outside Old Main but did not speak to the group. (Powers said later that Spanier was not in the office Tuesday afternoon.)
"We're not out here because we hate Penn State," said junior Travis Salters, who helped to lead the march and rally. "If we hated Penn State, we wouldn't be here."
He is not, he said, "trying to be radical. ... Not yet, anyway."
"We've had the meetings; we've had the talks. The time is now" for better tuition control, Salters said. He said students "will march every week if we have to, so be ready."
Some student organizers said their push won't stop at the university administration level. They said they believe that the state and federal governments need to do a better job of supporting higher education, as well. They're ready to take their case to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., they said.
One student speaker -- who did not announce her name -- asked the crowd: "Why is it that most of the people out here (at the rally) are African American?"
She went on to say that the university recruits students from urban areas, then fails to offer ample financial support to help them complete their educations.
"You all have the nerve to have a birthday celebration with people in polos and candy," she said, referring to the university's 156th birthday celebration in the HUB on Tuesday. "We don't need that (expletive). We need money."
A number of students spoke at length about their friends who've not completed their Penn State degrees because of rising tuition rates. Penn State ranks among the most expensive public universities in the country.
Powers, reached after the rally, said that "we don't disagree with the students."
"We know that tuition is going up. It's just that we don't have any say in our (state) appropriation, and that has the most impact on tuition," Powers said. "If your appropriation is cut as much as ours has been over the past years, there are consequences. And unfortunately, those consequences" affect tuition.
Penn State tuition rates for in-state students at University Park have more than tripled since the early 1990s. The university put much of the blame on relatively stagnant state appropriations, which now make up less than 10 percent of the overall university budget. State appropriations accounted for nearly 37 percent in 1970.
Pennsylvania now often ranks among the most conservative U.S. states in its funding of public higher education. That lackluster support has forced Penn State to put a bigger tuition burden on its students as the university tries to maintain its quality, university officials have said.
Right now, a Core Council at the university is trying to identify $10 million in expense cuts, a process likely to bring a variety of program closures and consolidation to Penn State's colleges. The overall university budget is about $4 billion a year.
"Something has to give," Powers said. "After these 10 years of flat appropriations or rescissions in our appropriation, we're feeling the pain."
Tentatively, the university administration has planned a 4.9 percent tuition increase for in-state students at University Park next year. Students in other categories also would see increases, though a lot hinges on how well the state government will fund Penn State next year. Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to introduce his first proposed budget, including higher-education funding, in early March.
Powers said the university administration hopes that students' pleas "would fall on the correct ears, which would be the people who decide how much we receive in appropriation." She said the students' "coming to Old Main in a show of solidarity is very admirable. Coming together for a cause they believe in is something (the administration) encourages.
"But they need to direct their conversation at people who can actually do something," she went on. "We have absolutely no effect on how much we're going to get in appropriation this year. We're trying, but ultimately it's up to the governor and the legislature."
More than 1,800 people had indicated on Facebook that they planned to attend Tuesday's student-led march and rally. At its height, perhaps closer to 200 people attended the event. The crowd swelled and contracted in number as some passers-by paused to listen, then moved along.
A number of student leaders helped to organize the rally, but no single organization was responsible, they said. They promised to return to Old Main for another rally at 1:30 p.m. March 2.