Rain doesn't deter USF St. Pete students from rallying against tuition hikes

11/28/11 Janelle Irwin
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Public college students across the state are experiencing sharp increases in tuition costs. An organization called Fight Back Florida is organizing protests at seven different universities this week. Today, students at University of South Florida St. Petersburg rallied to end tuition hikes.

Despite the rainy weather, organizers came out to make sure students knew about the 15 percent boost to their educational costs this year. Tyler Crawford is an organizer with Fight Back Florida, a statewide student and young worker coalition. He said cuts to the state’s university system shouldn’t come at the students’ expense.

“We would say that it’s a part of the legislature’s problem because they haven’t been able to generate revenue for schools. And we feel that students have a right to affordable education. I mean, this is how we get our foot in the door of the economy, how we get opportunities. I mean the thing about tuition increases, why they’re so bad is because students are being disenfranchised from their future, so it’s really hurting our generation a lot.”

Crawford said he knows first hand just how hard it is to juggle everyday finances with student loan obligations after graduation.

“I’m saddled with a pretty sizable debt, student loan debt that I had to take out to pay for my school. That’s something I have to pay back. I make payments of $250 per month, and for somebody who’s trying to get established and get themselves into a career, that’s a hard burden to shoulder.”

The cost to attend a public university in Florida is below the national average. But Christian Brooks who is a member of Socialist Alternative said even that is too high.

“OK, let’s accept that you don’t have a choice in this. That doesn’t necessarily lead us to the conclusion that the cuts are necessary or the hikes are necessary because as Socialists we see education as a right, and not as a privilege. And we think that there should be free education. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and we can afford a free education. The trouble is the one percent of people who control the wealth in society do not pay their taxes and if they did their tax rates aren’t high enough to begin with and they’re holding all their wealth and not investing it.”

Chardonnay Singleton gets help with the cost of her education through the Federal Pell Grant. But with the increasing costs of classes, housing and books, she still had to cut back on her course schedule.

“So, if they really want to talk about increasing tuition they should also talk about increasing the quality of education we receive at these institutions in Florida. Not only that, but requiring tenured professors to teach more classes and adjunct professors to teach less classes because the adjuncts are doing most of the work while the tenured professors are sitting up fat and happy with 100-grand a year while the adjuncts do most of the work. It’s not really a balanced system right now. If they made it more transparent then maybe we would be able to sit down and listen to the reasons why they want to increase tuition.”

Undergraduate students who earned a diploma in the state are often eligible for a Florida Bright Futures scholarship that covers up to 100 percent of tuition. But for students pursuing their education past a bachelor’s degree that perk disappears. For Amelia Zimmerman, that’s when the financial burden really hit.

“Grad classes are twice as much as regular classes. When Bright Futures cuts out at the end of your four years, you’re kind of left with nothing. And if they continue to raise tuition, I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish my graduate degree and with a bachelor’s degree in English Lit, you kind of have to go to get your masters and go on. I’d really like to stay here, but maybe not if the tuition continues to be raised.”

And students weren’t the only ones demonstrating on campus today. Occupy St. Pete’s general assembly voted to participate in the rally. Tony Rawson joined other protesters under a covered pavilion, but was asked to leave by campus police because he is not a student.

“They claim that this is not a sanctioned event so I guess unless you’re sanctioned by the campus administration, they have a feeling that you’re not allowed to protest on campus. I’m not exactly sure which particular statute here overrides the first amendment. So, I guess that’s something interesting to look into when time allows. Yeah, I asked them what particular statute we were violating by being a member of the public on a public university campus and they stated that they didn’t know but we weren’t welcome and we had to move since we were trespassing.”

A USF police officer said demonstrators who were not students could participate from the sidewalk, which is considered public property. Members of the media were allowed to conduct interviews from the pavilion without providing student identification. A USF St. Pete spokesperson declined to comment on the demonstration.

Today’s protest coincides with a nationwide student strike called for by Occupy UC Davis, where peaceful protesters were peppered sprayed by campus police earlier this month.

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