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On bright yellow signs, the students advertised their debt. "I am a student & my debt will be $19,000," one said. Another claimed $38,000. "Too much," one student scrawled.
More than 200 students at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities clutched the signs as they crisscrossed the State Capitol on Wednesday, speaking in the rotunda and lobbying their legislators.
"We simply ask that higher education be a priority," said Jacob Littler, president of the Minnesota State College Student Association.
They spoke, along with some legislators, against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed reductions to higher education spending. He has budgeted a $146 million cut in the MnSCU budget over the next two years and $151 million less for the University of Minnesota.
Across town at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, a different group of students protested with a similar message.
About 15 students and local activists waved signs and shouted, "What do we want? Money for schools! When do we want it? Now!" over the lunch hour outside Williamson Hall, where students can pay for tuition and fees in-person. Wednesday was the first due date for second semester tuition.
University of Minnesota junior Erik Barthel expects to graduate with $20,000 to $25,000 in student loans. He's worried, given proposed cuts in state funding to the university and a slumping job market, so he protested Wednesday against climbing tuition and the expected budget cuts.
"I feel very scared," Barthel said of the amount of loans he will shoulder. "The way the economy is right now, I need to get a good-paying job."
Protest organizers said they hope to increase membership in the newly created student group, U of M United Against Budget Cuts. The group plans future protests, and is circulating a petition against budget cuts and tuition hikes at the university.
University President Robert Bruininks has said the university is committed to keeping tuition down, but said it will be difficult to absorb such a significant cut in state funding.
At the Capitol, MnSCU students and several legislators emphasized higher education's role in rebuilding a strong workforce and, ultimately, a powerful economy.
They acknowledged that higher education has stiff competition -- especially from K-12 and health and human services -- for state funding. Higher education made up 8.6 percent of the state's general fund budget last year.
And they recognized that students would likely bear some of the state's $5 billion deficit through increases in tuition. But they asked that those increases be slight and warned that if they mirror those earlier this decade, fewer students would be able to attend.
"We are going to be the answer to this economic problem," Littler said.
After a year at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Alvin George dreams of completing a medical degree and opening a clinic in Pennsylvania.
His parents, who like him, are from Liberia, refused to fill out financial aid forms, so he's paying for school on his own with his job at McDonald's and more than $7,300 in Wells Fargo loans.
If tuition rose significantly, George said he would rethink continuing his education: "I do not want to put a debt on me that I cannot pay."