A throng of college students and administrators waved signs and shouted slogans as bands played fight songs Thursday during a rally to push for more state funds for higher education in Alabama.
Students also joined higher education officials in urging legislators to reach a fair solution to the crisis facing the state's prepaid college tuition program, known as PACT, without putting caps on tuition for PACT participants.
University officials favor legislation assuring that PACT contracts will be paid, but oppose a House-passed bill that would cap tuition increases for PACT participants at 2.5 percent.
The executive director of the Higher Education Partnership stood in front of the students chanting "Save the PACT, but not on our backs."
Broderick Thomas, a 23-year-old Auburn senior from Clay County, said he feels "it's the moral duty of the state to give back what they promised" to PACT participants. But he said he feels capping their tuition increases "is not a smart idea."
The annual higher education rally in Alabama was held on the same day as protests over university budget cuts in several other states.
Bands from Jacksonville State, Alabama State and the University of North Alabama played and cheerleaders cheered giving the event the feel of a rally before a college football game. Organizers said about 2,500 people took part.
The rally participants shouted slogans urging legislators to give them at least 30 percent of the state's education dollars. The universities currently receive about 28 percent of the education budget.
The chairman of the Senate education budget committee, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, curbed the enthusiasm somewhat, saying that during a recession it would be hard to find additional funds for higher education this year.
"I wish we could give all the money higher education needs," Sanders said, as some in the crowd groaned. "We're having to cut up to $460 million out of the budget the governor recommended."
The chairman of the House education budget committee, Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, also said preparing budgets would be difficult this year.
"All of us are aware of the economic decline," Lindsey said.
Holly Esch, a 25-year-old graduate student at Jacksonville State University, said she has seen the need for better funding for universities as her student loans have piled up.
But she said she would not favor capping tuition increases for PACT participants.
"What about the ones that don't have PACT? They still would have to pay tuition increases. That doesn't seem fair," Esch said.