Photo by Tim LaRiviere
The rotunda of the capitol building in Olympia echoed with the voices of an estimated 250 community and technical college students from all over Washington state as they shouted, “We are the future! Don’t cut the future!”
This year, around 25 students from Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College rallied for student rights on Feb. 1 along with students from 17 other schools.
The student legislative rally is an annual opportunity for students to voice their concerns to state legislators. Whatcom has participated in this event for at least four years.
It’s important to meet with the legislature so that “they see that we care about what’s going on at the legislative level and that we’re speaking on behalf of our students,” said Britton Johnson, student council vice president who helped organize Whatcom’s participation this year.
Johnson and other members of the student council attend several events over the course of the year, along with representatives from each community and technical college in Washington state. These events, such as the Legislative Academy, are held to discuss the issues affecting community and technical colleges across the state.
The event is headed by the Washington Association of Community and Technical Colleges in partnership with their Student Association (WACTCSA), which is made up of student leaders who represent the 500,000 community and technical college students in the state.
“The years of budget cuts and tuition increases threaten affordability and accessibility to higher education,” Kailene Sparrs, chair of WACTCSA council and student council president at Clover Park Technical College, wrote in an email. “The largest job growth in the state comes from ‘middle-skills jobs’ that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and that’s our system.”
One of the main issues at this year’s rally concerns potential cuts in funding for higher education, which could raise tuition. The students and other speakers joined together to make their voices heard.
Executive members of Whatcom’s student council met with Reps. Kristine Lytton and Vincent Buys, as well as Sen. Kevin Ranker to address this concern. The students also brought up a bill proposed Jan. 17 to eradicate sales tax on textbooks, and new building proposals such as a learning commons on Whatcom’s campus.
“Students are the purest form of representation for colleges in the eyes of the legislator,” said Kris Baier, director for student life and athletics at Whatcom. Not only is the rally an opportunity for students to connect with their legislators and show the importance of their cause, but it is also a chance to “engage in our democracy,” Baier said.
President of student council Chandra Thompson said the rally is important because legislators don’t get to hear from students often. “We really get to put ourselves out there and put our stories out so they understand the importance,” she said.
Rising tuition has the potential to affect every college student. Thompson, who is a single mother, said an increase in tuition would mean less money for her to support herself and her two sons, ages 6 and 3, while in school full time. Financial aid and tuition “aren’t balancing each other out,” she said.
Ron Raymundo, 26, a student at BTC and the president of the Beta Lambda Beta chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, is graduating this year and rising tuition in the future won’t directly affect him.
“I hope that what we did today will plant a seed of thought,” Raymundo said. “I really hope the people who sit there in their offices in their suits are listening.”
Zoe Witt, a Running Start student at Whatcom, doesn’t pay her tuition out of pocket and has guaranteed state funding because of the program. “Whatcom is a great place and I would hate to see funding cut,” she said. “A lot of people can’t afford four-year [universities].”
When Johnson, Thompson, Representative at Large Phelicia Parker and Chair of Budget and Finance Shawn Chantaboune of Whatcom’s student council, met with Ranker, he said he wanted to focus on getting rid of differential tuition.
“That should be my job, to find that money,” he said. Students should be able to study what they choose, he said, and should not be restricted to certain subjects based on costs.
Ranker said part of his job is to seek ideas for bills and laws that other states have in effect and try to implement them in our own state.
One of these ideas is creating a website where transfer students can go and search which school and program they plan to transfer to, which will tell them which credits they have already earned that will or will not transfer over. He said that Washington is one of six states that doesn’t currently have a program like this, and it’s estimated to cost $800,000.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, who also chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, spoke of the necessity for students and legislators to work together.
“My goal is to make sure that every single person in this state that wants an education, a higher education, will get that education and a job at the end of that education,” Bailey said.
Representative and Chair for the House Higher Education Committee Larry Seaquist said his aim is to see the state become rapidly more educated, which means there is a need for more funding allocated to higher education.
“I worry that the public is allowing us to not become fully educated,” he said.
He spoke of the importance of ensuring the legislature puts enough money in the budget for higher education, calling community and technical colleges “big engines of progress.” The political goal of zero increase in higher education tuition depends on this.
“Washington State needs more graduates,” he said.
Seaquist stressed the importance of community and technical colleges, saying that they work hard to help students who may have difficulties getting into the classroom and getting their degrees, and often students at these schools are more driven and have a mission when compared to students at four-year universities.
“It’s very hard for the legislator to ignore the student, especially the articulated student,” he said. “We simply have to become a more educated people.”