Students Fight For Higher Ed. Funding

Published 3:25 pm Thursday, December 18, 2014

FARMVILLE — Joe Gills is one of 13 university student body presidents who asked Governor McAuliffe to “save our slice.”

They were not ordering out for pizza.

Instead, the future affordability of a college education is at stake.

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The “slice” referred to by Gills, president of Longwood’s Student Government Association, and his colleagues is budgetary. They asked the governor to spare institutions of higher learning from any additional budget cuts.

And that is exactly what the governor served up this week.

Governor McAuliffe took his budget proposal out of the oven Wednesday, presenting it to House and Senate money committees, and there were higher education toppings and no additional thinning of the dough.

“Today, I am proud to announce that my budget recommendations contain…no additional cuts to higher education in Virginia,” Governor McAuliffe said.

Additionally, the governor has requested $2.5 million in new financial aid funding and $10 million for state-supported colleges and universities to purchase the latest equipment for instruction and research technology.

Gills, a Farmville resident, believes it was “extremely important” for students to communicate their message to the governor and General Assembly, to be advocates for themselves and those who will follow them to state-supported institutions of higher learning in the commonwealth.

They do not want to shirk what they see as their responsibility and leave the issue solely in the hands of politicians.

“Every year the price of tuition goes up and that makes it harder for some students to go to college and I think it’s important for students to voice their opinions,” he said during an interview with The Herald.

“A lot of the times things come up and you don’t really hear much from the younger generation,” he continued, “so it’s really important that we get involved, especially at this early stage because these things are starting to affect us and they’re definitely going to affect us over the next 10 years. So it’s extremely important that we start taking action on a lot of these issues.”

The action taken by Gills and his fellow student body presidents was a video, produced by the organization Virginia21, which blended their collective voices into that one message, with a supporting petition.

The petition at Virginia21’s website notes that the state’s elected officials are expected to be looking for $322 million in budget cuts next year. “They usually cut higher ed. first and the most,” the website states. “Tell them to keep our colleges off the chopping block. We can’t afford more cuts that will: threaten the quality and affordability of our colleges, shift costs onto students’ backs (and) make it harder for graduates to get jobs. Enough is enough.”

Thousands of students across the state signed the petition.

Gills said the purpose of the video and petition “was to tell Governor McAuliffe that students do care about the price of their tuition and other issues within the government and higher education…”

Pointing out that student debt is a “huge national issue, as well,” Gills said the subject is “something my generation is going to have to deal with and find a solution to and it’s important we have people my age, or, shoot, even younger, already starting to think about these things and getting involved in the conversation so it just doesn’t hit us blindsided in the next 20, 30 years.”

Virginia21 describes itself as “the first true generational advocate for young voters. We stand up for you—Virginia’s 18 to 26-year-olds. We provide information, direct advocacy, and coordinate political action on a non-partisan agenda focused on making college affordable, ensuring young people have jobs, and building a government that works.”

Gills said the organization has also “done a lot with voter registration, getting students registered to vote and to vote in elections (but) right now the big thing is the budget.”

The Longwood University senior sees the 13 college presidents following up the video with a press conference at the capitol as the General Assembly session begins its budgetary deliberations, and then meeting with legislators.

“I think it would bring a good amount of attention onto the whole situation,” he said.

“It’s extremely important,” he said of the budgetary fate of Longwood and her sister state-supported institutions of higher learning, “and I really hope we can get more students involved and hopefully, if the media can help us promote the message…we can hopefully get a response from Governor McAuliffe.”

On Wednesday morning, they got precisely the response they were hoping for from the governor.

Instead of ordering pizza-to-go, Gills and his fellow student leaders are fighting for funding-to-stay.

And, if the General Assembly agrees with Gov. McAuliffe, that thick and chewy crust is exactly the kind of dough the state will bring to the higher education table.

Gills could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Virginia21 issued a statement citing the “very touch decisions” faced by the governor to balance the budget.

“And we couldn’t be prouder,” the organization proclaimed, “that he stood strong in advancing young people’s priorities.”