The Alabama budget, higher education funding and the possibility of a statewide lottery were several of the topics discussed at the 19th annual STARS (Students Teams Advocating Realistic Solutions) conference in Destin, Florida, from July 31 to Aug. 2.
Five students from Troy University’s main campus attended the three-day session hosted by the Higher Education Partnership. Fourteen of Alabama’s public colleges and universities gathered together to discuss issues pertaining to and affecting higher education.
Farrah Gaston, a senior biomedical science major from Camden and SGA’s director of administration, said she learned a lot of valuable information from the conference.
“The one statistic that influenced me the most was that only one in five residents of Alabama hold a bachelor’s degree or higher,” Gaston said.
Attendees heard from legislators who shared their thoughts on the upcoming special session beginning on Aug. 15 in Montgomery.
Representative Bill Poole from District 63 and chairman of House Ways and Means Education Budget Committee said that education is vital to the workforce and economic development of the state.
“Education is the solution,” Poole said.
Senator Arthur Orr from District 3 and chairman of the Joint Fiscal Committee encouraged college students to seek employment in Alabama after graduating college.
“Do what you can and stay here to help us build a better state,” Orr said.
Governor Robert Bentley called the special session purposed to propose a lottery to fund the state’s ongoing funding gap for state services.
The state of Alabama has two budgets: the general fund, which largely funds Medicaid and corrections facilities, and the Education Trust Fund, which funds K-12 through Ph.D. programs in Alabama.
The Education Trust Fund receives its revenue from sales and income taxes. Presuming that the economy is doing well, so will the Education Trust Fund.
According to a presentation given at the conference, before the nationwide recession in 2008, higher education was allocated approximately one-third of the Education Trust Fund. Since then, recovery to two-thirds has not been reached for higher education.
According to the Alabama Legislative fiscal office, K-12 received 69.64 percent of the educational trust fund for the 2014 fiscal year. Higher education received 19.31 percent.
Bentley has estimated that the statewide lottery would produce $225 million a year allocated to the General Fund.
Senator Jabo Waggoner from District 16 commented on implications of a lottery beyond the financial prospects.
“There is a social cost when you have gambling in a state,” Wagner said.
Gaston said she believes that a lottery would benefit higher education if allocated appropriately.
“More funding for higher education means more students have the opportunity to attend and have the financial resources to pay for it,” Gaston said.
Gordon Stone, mayor of Pike Road and executive director of the Higher Education Partnership, said that the partnership has the interest of students and institutions in mind in consideration of statewide lottery.
“There are has been a lot of discussion but bills have not been fully introduced,” Stone said. “We are firm about our commitment to guard and protect the Education Trust Fund.”
Students heard from Brett Johnson, director of membership and student activities for the Higher Education Partnership, on techniques advocating not only on their respective campuses but also to their respective legislators on the importance of higher education.
“The main thing is that students have to realize that they are apart of something bigger than themselves,” Johnson said.
Establishing voter registration drives, calling, writing and meeting legislators were some of the suggestions that Johnson offered.
“Sometimes elected officials look at college students as potential voters that don’t participate in the election process,” he said. “Students can increase their profile to legislators by participating.”
Stone said he encourages students to be advocates on their campuses.
“We need advocates to help us get the state to do more,” Stone said. “Contact your legislator on campus and back and home and make sure they know the impact of our universities representing 180,000 voters across our campuses.”
Troy University’s John Kline, director of the Institute of Leadership Development, also provided some tips and suggestions for participants to be motivational leaders.
“Commitment is doing something no matter what,” Kline said. “You must be motivated and demonstrate confidence in others.”
Students also had the opportunity to prepare for Higher Education Day taking place on Feb. 25, 2016 in Montgomery.