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College students rally for funding at State House

Lawmakers told of debt struggles

Hundreds of Massachusetts college students, many of them saddled with debt, flooded lawmakers’ offices at the State House on Tuesday to lobby for an increase in financial aid funding.

“I’m graduating in the spring, and I will have over $20,000 in debt, and I haven’t even transferred to a four-year college,” Nicole Ouimette, who attends Holyoke Community College, told students in the Gardner Auditorium.“I’m ­devoted to making sure that we all are able to have more accessible and affordable higher education so that in the future students do not have to feel the pains that we are now.”

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The event, titled Public Higher Education Advocacy Day, started with a pep rally inside the auditorium.

Governor Deval Patrick made a brief appearance, telling the students that more money in public higher education is crucial to make it affordable for all.

“I have stared at this budget long and hard. . . . So I see the faces and the lives behind those line items,” he said. “And I’m here to tell you we’re not going to be able to reform our way to an affordable higher ed system. We have to invest.

“If we’re going to keep the public in public higher ed, then the public has to step up, too,” Patrick added.

Patrick’s proposed $1.9 billion tax increase would raise money to bolster education from pre-kindergarten through college, including a significant increase in the MASSGrant Program. The program provides financial aid to students demonstrating the greatest need. The tax plan would quadruple the amount to $152 million.

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University of Massachusetts President Robert Caret recently said that tuition rates and fees at system schools could be frozen next school year if the Legislature passes Patrick’s proposal to pump $100 million into the public higher education system over the next several years.

Patrick’s plan would also ­allow for the expansion of the Completion Incentive Grant Fund, a pilot program that awards students at some schools a maximum of $8,000 over four years.

Costs to attend Massachusetts public colleges vary. In-state tuition, fees, and room and board at UMass Amherst for the 2012-2013 school year cost $23,167. At Bridgewater State University, the total cost for the year is $18,645.

The students rallied Tuesday amid rising concern nationwide about the soaring cost of college. Patrick said that while state colleges and universities must continue internal cost cutting, taxpayers must also be prepared to contribute.

After the rally, the students divided into groups under the name cards of their elected officials. About 30 students gathered around a woman holding the card that read “Chang-Diaz, Sonia,” a state senator from Boston. They were met in her office by Chynah Tyler, the senator’s legislative aide.

Tyler told the group that Chang-Diaz had a full agenda for the day and couldn’t meet with them, but that the senator fully backs Patrick’s proposals. She then took questions in the hallway, jotting down students’ concerns in a notebook.

“I am graduating in a couple of months, but unfortunately a lot of the . . . disincentives of higher education will be with me,” said Gary Uter, 21, a political science and history major at UMass Boston. “I’m talking about student loans — those things are going to be with me long past my time at the university.”

Still, Uter said he was thankful for the chance to earn a ­degree. “I want to make sure that opportunity is not only available to myself but the children of my children and everyone who wants to benefit and contribute to society,” he said.

Brian Ballou can be reached
at bballou@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.

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