My experience as a politically engaged college student has taught me that change occurs when people organize.  No matter how quiet our individual voices may seem, we cannot help but be heard if we shout together. On Thursday, Feb. 23, we students have an opportunity to lend our voices to a worthy cause that directly impacts our present and future: Higher Education Day 2017.

Higher Education Day, held on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, is an annual advocacy rally during the regular session of the Alabama legislature. The rally congregates students from all fourteen public universities in the state to demonstrate their support for higher education funding. It is the largest annual rally in Montgomery and the cornerstone of higher education advocacy in Alabama.

This year is a critical juncture for higher education funding. As a result of The Great Recession, state appropriations for public universities decreased by over 556 million dollars between 2008 and 2013. Only four states cut more public funding for higher education in that time period than Alabama. Though funding has increased gradually since 2013, it is still 36 percent below pre-recession levels.

Furthermore, Alabama’s current political climate has the potential to threaten the progress that we have already made. As the state now faces an annual struggle to finance major items such as Medicaid and an expanding correctional system, some public officials have suggested that diverting revenue bound for Alabama’s Education Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund is the solution to this problem. We, as beneficiaries of the public education system, should send a message to our legislators. Slashing funds for higher education must be off the table.

This is more than just a matter of principle. Higher education funding directly impacts students’ personal finances and quality of education. According to a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, average tuition at public universities in Alabama is up by $3,757 since 2008. There is an inverse relationship between public funding for higher education and tuition rates. As the legislature invests in universities, the cost of attendance incurred by students decreases; accordingly, attending college becomes easier for all students regardless of socioeconomic background.

Moreover, research shows that when schools become reliant on tuition revenue, academic programs and student services suffer. This is because universities cannot increase tuition rates quickly enough to match the growing costs of their programs and services without jeopardizing enrollment rates. These facts are particularly relevant to the University of Montevallo. We are a regional university that serves many students who require financial assistance to attend school. In fact, 38 percent of our student body is Pell eligible. Additionally, state funds go further at UM than at many other public schools because we do not generate as much revenue from auxiliary sources such as football tickets and merchandise.

Higher education is a necessary component of a free and democratic society. A college education teaches people how to think critically and exposes them to diverse perspectives. It also gives them the ability to reason and empathize. These skills are necessary to make our form of government work. I believe it is our civic duty to advocate for higher education because it has cultivated these qualities within us. If you agree, join me in Montgomery on Feb. 23 for Higher Education Day.

(SGA is sponsoring busses for the first 100 students to sign up for Higher Education Day. Sign ups will take place weekly in the Caf until the day of the rally. Students are responsible for informing their professors of their intent to attend Higher Education Day, as well as for making arrangements to make up what they missed in class.)