The effect of the economy on public higher education was the topic on the table yesterday amongst a panel of faculty, students and a former member of the Obama administration at the University of Southern Maine.

The panel was organized as part of the National Day of Action to Defend Education, a movement started in California last fall after increased tuition and cuts in state funding prompted a day of protests and strikes on March 4 at universities and colleges across the country.

Many lamented the difficulty students face in trying to pay for college without amassing large sums of debt.

“I have never heard of a single instance of students paying for it in four years with their own money they were making,” said Mako Bates, a USM student.

“It is basically a sound investment to go to school,” he said, but added that it’s no longer an investment everyone can make.

Steve Lovejoy, state representative for District 114, told the crowd was able to pay off his student debt a month after graduating from USM in the early 1970s.

“No one can do that anymore,” he said.

Glenn Cummings, former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, who was also previously an economics professor at USM, said he remembered students dropping his courses after encountering unexpected expenses like car repairs.

“Money makes a huge difference for these kids. Every cent counts,” he said.

“We are in a crisis at USM and across the country,” said Justin Alfond, state representative for District 8.

Alfond and Lovejoy both urged people to reach out to their representatives and fight for higher education. “It makes a difference,” said Alfond.

Alfond said he had asked Governor John Baldacci to restore all the cuts to higher education and increase funding earlier in the spring. The next day Baldacci announced he would be restoring $8 million to higher education, along with other health and human services. “That’s what we need to be doing everyday,” he said.

Jennifer Hayward, a junior psychology student, voiced her concern about the efficiency of the university. “If you can’t strengthen the services you already have, that’s a problem,” she said.

Bates countered her statement saying that despite some problems with the system, the university should still get more funding.

Cummings said employers look for several things for employees: the ability to think critically, communicate with co-workers and be able to work effectively without bothering higher-ups in the company. He said USM does a good job preparing students with these skills.

But Hayward questioned if the thousands spend on tuition is really necessary to learn these abilities.

Organizers of the panel said they we’re pleased with the turnout and the quality of discussion.

“This gathering was put together in a relatively short time,” said George Caffentzis, professor of philosophy. “I think something is going on. Our students are recognizing that this is a very historical moment,” he said.

Panel members also asked the audience to examine how public education is viewed.

“USM is not just a cost, but a gift to the community. The school should ask how much it gives to the community, said Caffentzis.

“Either we take a collective responsibility for [education], or we can’t really address it at all,” said Jason Read, professor of philosophy. “It has to be something we see as a public benefit.”

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