ETSU students protest funding cuts

By Abby Morris

Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Students at East Tennessee State University staged a walkout and rally to show their disapproval of proposed budget cuts and a possible tuition increase currently being considered by the Tennessee Board of Regents for the 2003-2004 academic year.
   At 12:30 p.m., students wielding signs and wearing blue and gold ribbons, the school's colors, packed into a portion of the ETSU student center called the Cave to show their support for the walkout. As part of the rally, organizers invited students to register to vote and to sign a petition opposing budget cuts and a hike in tuition.
   ETSU student Katie Craig, who was one of the main organizers of the walkout, addressed the students in the crowd. "During my four years at ETSU, my tuition has nearly doubled while the numbers of classes as well as other student services has decreased," she said to those present. "Each year, the state legislature claims they have increased funding for higher education; instead, what they have taken credit for are the tuition checks that you and I write as their increase.
   "Each year, the legislature says that funding for higher education is going to be better, and each year it is worse."
   Craig encouraged the students to get involved in the political process and to contact their state representatives to voice their opinion on the budget situation and pending cuts to higher education funding. "Your voice is powerful; together, our voices can make a difference," she said. "It is time for students to set the agenda for policies that support higher education. A strong system of higher education will determine a strong future for Tennessee.
   "Now is the time for students to initiate change in and with the Tennessee Legislature. Now is the time for the student voice to be heard."
   Craig asked the crowd several questions during the course of her talk. "Are we satisfied that Tennessee is 50th in every ranking of higher education? Are we satisfied that barely 12 percent of the population in Northeast Tennessee have a bachelor's degree when the national average is over 20 percent? Are we satisfied that our tuition costs keep going up while services and programs keep going down?" she asked the crowd, which responded with a booming reply of "No" at the end of each question.
   According to Nancy Padgett, another ETSU student who spoke at the rally, higher education cuts have been an on-going problem at state funded institutions and the problem is only growing worse. "Across the board all state schools will experience a nine percent cut in higher education funds for the 2003-2004 school year," she said. "For ETSU, that means a reduction of $4,872,300. One of the proposals from the Tennessee Board of Regents is to raise tuition by 14 percent."
   Padgett also told the crowd that this year, ETSU was allocated $54,127,600 by the TBR and that legislators then later asked that the university return five percent of that funding, more than $2.7 million.
   The pending tuition hike of 14 percent would come on the heels of three consecutive years of tuition increase. The 2001-2002 academic year saw students facing a 15 percent tuition hike. Tuition at the university increased 10 percent for the 2000-2001 school year. Students faced an increase of seven percent during the 1999-2000 school year.
   Many who attended the rally discussed their concerns with their fellow students.
   "I think that they're in serious danger of not giving us the education we deserve," said Kari Ratliff, a student. "I think we'll see a lot of students who will have their majors cut or classes that they need will not be offered as often. I think people will have to start going more semesters to fulfill their degree requirements."
   Many students were also concerned about the implications that increased tuition would have on financial aid. "I already have to take out student loans to pay for my classes," said student Jeremiah Caughran. "It's getting harder and harder to keep my loans up, and it just keeps getting to be more and more."
   Some students wanted to point out that by staging the walkout, they were not criticizing the state legislature, but, rather, were hoping to work to make legislators aware of the financial situation of higher education. "This walkout was not to scrutinize the men and women at the Capital, nor was this events cause to call out for immediate reform," said Daniel D. Hatcher, a member of the Student Government Association at ETSU. "This event was to raise the awareness of our state government to our problems in dealing with this issue. For we also feel that if this problem is not voiced, then changes may not occur."