On July 10, the PASSHE Board of Governors (BOG) and the Presidents of the 14 Pennsylvania State Universities met at Dixon University Center in Harrisburg to discuss the progress on a variety of projects before the start of the 2019-2020 academic year. By far, the most impactful and difficult decision to be made at the BOG meeting was whether or not to raise tuition rates at PASSHE schools for the upcoming term. PASSHE schools have increased their tuition rates every year since 2008, and the raises have varied from 2.5% (2017) to 7.5% (2011). This trend of quickly escalating tuition rates goes hand in hand with the deep budget cuts to higher education passed by PA State Legislators between 2008 and 2011. As a taxpayer and student-funded public system, PASSHE should be prioritizing the implementation of policies that aim to better the lives of their students, professors, workers, and communities, rather than continue to drive us deeper and deeper into debt. In an effort to prevent further tuition increases, Pennsylvania Student Power Network (PSPN) brought a team of student leaders from Kutztown, Millersville, and IUP to the BOG Meeting to act as a voice for PASSHE students.
As a new member of PSPN, I was elated to play a role in both the planning and execution of the student-led action in Harrisburg. Being an organizing novice, it was incredible to see our campaign come to life in just 4 short days. In that time, my team was able to create a petition that received over 90 signatures from PASSHE students and supporters in 24 hours, solely through a cross-platform social media campaign. Four of our students wrote impactful speeches discussing how their student loans hold them back from reaching their true potential and delivered those speeches to the entire BOG body during the public comment period. We were able to craft a novel visual aspect of our campaign that embodied various ways our student debt can prevent us from leading full and independent lives. Most importantly, we were able to amplify the needs of PASSHE students at a meeting that is integral to our futures and secure a tuition freeze for only the second time in 36 years.
PASSHE Board meetings are open to the public, but PSPN students were the only community speakers present at this meeting. It is also worth noting that BOG meetings are seemingly designed to limit the scope of Public Comments, as it is difficult to find specific information about the time and location of their meetings without doing some serious internet sleuthing. Additionally, the meetings are structured so that Public Comments is the final item on the agenda. PSPN arrived at Dixon University Center for the start of the meeting at 1:00, and we were told that we would have time to speak around 4:00. Once the meeting got started, it was clear to us that that would not be the case.
The meeting first discussed the progress of an ongoing system redesign to unify and streamline PASSHE schools. Their multi-faceted plan includes elements like new KPI’s to determine the effectiveness of the 14 State Universities on a variety of levels, as well as the implementation of what they call a “Sharing System”. PASSHE plans on centralizing various departments, such as IT, that are currently being run independently through each of the 14 Universities. Perhaps the most innovative and beneficial change being made in the system redesign is the ability for students to enroll in courses that are offered at any PASSHE school, regardless of where they are currently enrolled. According to the strategy overview available on PASSHE’s website, they are working to create a system “where universities work interdependently—leveraging their combined scale to maximize students’ access to academic programs, experiential learning opportunities, career placement, and more”.
The BOG then took a short recess and, once regrouped, continued to discuss the progress of other agenda topics before starting their discussion of 2019-2020 tuition rates at around 4:00. Yes, 4:00. The time that we were told that we would have the opportunity for public comment. At that point, my nerves set in and I began to fear the worst — we were being pushed out. As I mentioned before, I am an activism novice, and this was the first time I had ever been at a board meeting like this, so my head was spinning with “what ifs..”.
…What if they were purposefully taking their sweet time discussing other topics in an effort to run out the clock?
…What if they adjourn the meeting and proceed with their vote on July 11, when PSPN would not be there to be a voice for the students?
…What if we made a mistake in informing them ahead of time that we would be there to comment?
In my anxious state, I looked over at my team. They were calm, they were composed, but most importantly, they were ready to wreak havoc if need be. Their energy helped me to refocus my mind on what we were really there to do.
The BOG outlined four options for tuition increases, 0%, 1%, 2%, and 3%. Chancellor Greenstein took time to discuss his ideal choices, which were 0% or 3% increases. In the case of a 3% increase, the Chancellor had a plan to redistribute 75% of the revenue from the increase to low-income students, but he ultimately advocated for a freeze on tuition for 2019-2020. To say we were shocked would be an understatement. In the multitude of strategy calls we had in the days leading up to the meeting, PSPN director James Cersonsky stressed the fact that this would likely not be an easy task. We had mentally and emotionally prepared to be ignored, to be shot down, to be essentially belittled by the Board of Governors. We were further surprised when the majority of the BOG agreed with Chancellor Greenstein’s recommendation of a 0% increase.
At around 5:00, Cynthia Shapira, Chairwomen of the BOG, opened the floor for public comment and invited PSPN to speak. The six of us stood around the podium, looking directly into the eyes of the rich and powerful people who quite literally held our livelihoods in their hands. We held signs, designed to look like receipts, which highlighted ways that our student debt can hold us back. According to a 2018 LendEDU report, PA graduates have the highest student debt of all 50 states, averaging around $36,200 per student. We could have spent that $36,200 on 144 car payments at $250 a payment, 40 months of rent at $895 a month (the average cost of rent in PA), or over 12,000 gallons of gas at $3.01 a gallon (average cost in PA), but instead we have to spend it on our PASSHE student loans. Our visuals furthered the point that our student debt prevents us from living our lives to the fullest.
Nathan Warren, a PSPN member from Millersville University, gave personal testimony to their struggles with being a disabled student and worker, saying
“This fall, I’m excited to start student teaching and making an impact on future generations. While student teaching is a full-time commitment, it is an unpaid internship, and I know I will need to work multiple part-time jobs in addition to student teaching in order to afford basic necessities like rent. I want to focus on the classroom, but I’m constantly at risk of dropping out due to cost. […] I have been unable to afford important medication and I just barely make rent. Please freeze tuition now; students are struggling for survival just to be in debt for the rest of our lives.”
Students Taya Jackson, Vanessa Nonez, and Michaela Yurchak also gave moving speeches to the Board. We passed out copies of our petition, along with the names and schools of its’ 90 supporters, to the BOG and the University Presidents. At the conclusion of our presentation, the BOG took their final vote on tuition increases. Thanks to the words of our courageous student speakers, we were able to push anyone on the fence to vote in our favor, and the BOG unanimously passed a 0% tuition increase for the 2019-2020 academic year.
This is a huge win for PSPN and all students, faculty, and staff at the 14 PASSHE schools. While a tuition freeze is a step in the right direction, PSPN will continue to fight for the integration of a true College for All system in Pennsylvania that is accessible, equitable, and accommodating of ALL Pennsylvania residents who are seeking a higher education.