Students lobby for affordable tuition

After sitting through an unexpected six-hour-long bus ride to the state Capitol Building, Pitt advocates had to be quick on their feet as they pushed for more commonwealth education funding.

Two coach buses full of students, administrators and alumni took Wednesday off for Pitt Day in Harrisburg, an annual event that allows members of the Pitt community to lobby state representatives for funding. Originally expected to arrive in Harrisburg at 10:30 a.m., the buses from Pitt hit traffic and pulled up at about 1 p.m. following the traffic-ridden trip. Traffic aside, the students who participated were curious to learn how Gov. Tom Wolf’s new budget plan would affect funding for higher education. 

In his 2015-2016 budget proposal, Wolf plans to spend 5.5 percent, or $1.64 billion, of the $29.9 billion General Fund Expenditures on higher education. This proposal marks an increase from the 2014-2015 budget, which doled out $894,183,700 to higher education.

For this year, Wolf proposed a 10.9 percent increase in funding from last year for Pitt. Last year, Pitt received $136,293,000, according to Wolf’s budget.

Roc the Panther greeted students and alumni as they finally entered the snow-covered Capitol Building. On the now-abbreviated agenda: lunch, followed by guided tours through the building.  Chancellor Patrick Gallagher addressed an assembly of attending students, Pitt faculty and representatives at 3 p.m. to thank representatives before returning to the buses at 3:30 p.m. for the trip back to Pitt. 

According to Google Maps, the trip from the Cathedral of Learning to the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building should have taken about three-and-a-half hours in normal traffic conditions.

Brendan Gambrell, a junior social work major interested in education, said he was excited to learn how the legislature spends money on schools, from elementary to higher education.

“I want to get an insightful look into how our political process works,” he said.  

Jackie Madison, a senior social work major, was looking forward to the governmental career panel, held at 2 p.m., where student could pose questions about starting a career in government. 

“I’m interested in community organization, so I want to make as many contacts as I can now,” Madison said.

The building is a marble maze, proving tough to navigate for visitors. Four students were late to a meeting with Senator Jay Costa’s policy director, Stephen Bruder, claiming they had gotten lost.

Despite the confusion and lost time, Madison still got to ask questions and propose an idea to Costa’s Deputy Chief Counsel, Ronald Jumper. 

“I think we should be investing in the idea of student resources of energy, time and skills to motivate businesses in exchange for tuition reimbursement,” Madison said.

Jumper said he would call the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce on Madison’s behalf, and would continue to help her if other students were interested.

“[Today is] great because we can make the changes we are learning about in school,” Madison said. 

Inclement weather and a cancelled session also led to some representatives’ early takeoffs, according to the office of Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny.

Frankel was not in his office, but the executive director of his office, Gabe Spece, spoke of Frankel’s education initiatives. 

“[Frankel] supports grant money for students who use the [Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency], which helps with school loans so that students can afford college,” Spece said. “Student tuition debt is crushing.”

The offices of both Costa and Frankel said bipartisan cooperation on the state budget is difficult. According to Spece, Frankel’s office remains unsure of how other representatives will receive Wolf’s new budget, and Frankel is “not ready” to speak out on the issue yet. 

As Pitt is a state-related school, rather than a state-system school, it receives less money than other Pennsylvania colleges and universities. Other state-related schools include Penn State, Temple and Lincoln, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website. 

“[Frankel] would say we have to restore those cuts, and the way we have to do that is to be stewards of education funding,” Spece said. “We have to understand that we need the money to pay for it. That means having to look at those tax raises.”

The Pitt Alumni Association organized the event in partnership with the Office of Community and Governmental Relations. 

Steve Anderson, associate dean of students and director of residence life, said Pitt Day in Harrisburg was successful despite the “mini-adventure” of traffic delays.

“Students got to have their voices heard,” he said.