HARRISBURG, Pa. — Senators, faculty and students from across Pennsylvania gathered on the steps of the Capitol main rotunda on Wednesday to rally for the Pennsylvania Promise Act.
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), a long-time advocate for affordable college, began the rally by leading the crowd of more than 100 supporters in a chant.
“Repeat after me! Free college,” he shouted. The crowd enthusiastically echoed him, “Free college!”
Hughes stepped up to the podium and welcomed those in attendance to Harrisburg.
“We want to let the entire state know that there is nothing wrong with free college,” Hughes said.
According to Hughes’ website, he is sponsoring Senate Bill 111 and Reps. Jordan Harris and James Roebuck Jr. are sponsoring House Bill 244. Both bills aim to create the Pennsylvania Promise, a program which will provide funding for students with a household income of $110,000 or less attending college in-state.
Hughes said Pennsylvania is last in the nation with support for college and student debt and has the highest student debt in the nation.
After rallying the crowd, Hughes introduced the first of many speakers, Harris, a Millersville University graduate.
“I know exactly what it is like to be a student going to school in the state system of Pennsylvania,” Harris said, empathizing with the students standing behind him.
He shared that his grandmother would take money out of her retirement check bi-monthly just so he could afford to eat.
“She understood that the best investment we can make is an investment in people,” Harris said.
He stressed that the Pennsylvania Promise is the moral thing to do for the commonwealth.
“There is no greater good that we can do as a commonwealth than to invest in the future of people through education,” he said. “No individual should graduate with a mountain of debt.”
A mountain of debt would prohibit graduates from buying homes, cars or even supporting their families, he said.
Roebuck Jr. discussed the need for change in the current system for higher education. He emphasized that every student is entitled to higher education.
Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) and East Stroudsburg University professor, shared a similar viewpoint as the previous speakers.
He explained that today’s legislators did not have to pay the amount of money today’s students are facing.
“The commonwealth paid for two-thirds of the cost of [higher] education. Right now, the commonwealth picks up less than 25 percent,” he said. “Those who had affordable public education are denying these students the same thing.”
He said graduating students are more concerned about monthly loan debt payments than ever, causing financial difficulties.
Cathrine Zerfing, a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, understands financial difficulties. Zerfing grew up homeless, but worked hard to get to college.
“Hard work alone would not be enough to provide the financially stable future I yearned for. As Janet Jackson suggested, ‘I needed the knowledge,’” she said.
She was turned away from college at the age of 17 because she could not get the finances to go.
“This cycle perpetuated poverty into my children’s lives. This story isn’t just my own, it is repeated across the state,” she said. “Affordable tuition could bring this cycle to an end for many.”
Kutztown University senior Vanessa Nonez, who is the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, shared the importance and privilege of having access to affordable higher education.
“PA Promise is more than a way to alleviate college debt amongst students,” she said. “PA Promise is a way towards a human right to education.”
She also spoke of how the effects of the Pennsylvania Promise can impact the economy of Pennsylvania through helping sexual assault survivors, adults with disabilities and formerly incarcerated parents better their lives.
After Nonez finished, Hughes took to the podium to rally the crowd once more.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to legislators. You voted them in. Your vote counts and matters,” he said.
“Free college” and “educate the state” reverberated throughout the main rotunda once more.
After the rally, participants were invited to talk with legislators about the Pennsylvania Promise.
For more information, visit www.papromise.org.