As a prelude to the Democratic National Convention, on Tuesday night the America Forward Coalition, a network of 75 community-based organizations working in cities across the country, hosted a Student Town Hall meeting at the Philadelphia History Museum. The purpose was to expand awareness about higher-education issues during the presidential campaign.
Before a guest panel, students voiced their concerns about debt and finance, the special problems concerning part-time students, and diversity and culture in higher education. Representatives from both presidential campaigns and academic administrators were among those who attended the Town Hall.
The panelists included State Rep. Jordan Harris, Philadelphia’s 186th District; Joseph Coyle, executive director of Year Up Philadelphia, a job-training nonprofit; Barbara Mattleman, executive director of Graduate! Philadelphia; Jeffrey Krug, dean of the College of Business at Bloomsburg University; Sheldon Horowitz of the National Center for Learning Disability; and David Croom, strategy officer at the Lumina Foundation. The event was organized and conducted by America Forward managers Juanita Tolliver and Sarah Groh.
“Today’s college students don’t look like they did 50 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Tolliver said. “But higher education policy hasn't kept pace with these changes. And it’s important for the next administration to understand who today's students are and the challenges they're facing by yielding the floor to them.”
Philadelphia college students and graduates from Peirce College, Cabrini College, St. Joseph’s University, and Oakwood University in Alabama shared stories of their journeys to higher education before a question-and-answer period.
Gladys Sistrunk, a Cabrini College student and ordained minister, talked about how she was diagnosed with lupus and had to give up her job. She was also homeless at one point, but with the help of Graduate! Philadelphia and her faith, she was able to enroll at Cabrini and today has a 4.0 GPA.
“To any of the presidential candidates’ delegates here,” she said. “I wanted to let you know: Take another look when you walk over someone that is laying on the street. It doesn’t mean that they’re lazy. It doesn’t mean that they’re on drugs, crackheads, or people that just don’t want to move forward. Situations happen in life. Today we can be up, tomorrow we can be down.”
During the question-and-answer session, Courtney Thompson, a student at Temple University, spoke about losing her financial aid and scholarships after changing her enrollment status from full time to part time due to financial and family obligations. She said colleges should be fair to the financial needs and extenuating circumstances of part-time students.
“They’re not doing it to prolong their college degrees,” Thompson said. “They’re doing it because they have financial needs that they need to fulfill. And you’re not incentivizing students to graduate sooner by denying them aid that they need. They’re not going to become full time just because you take away their money. They’re going to drop out of school.”
Unlike other town halls, this format was designed to maximize student input, said organizer Groh.
“You think about that traditional town hall,” she said. At these, “There has been that occasional bright spot of the student story that goes viral."
But, she added, they were looking for more than the occasional success story.
Instead, she said: "What if we flipped the script and the majority of the air time goes to students?”
In between discussions, audience members who didn’t speak had an opportunity to be heard through a real-time text message survey asking questions that related to job security, cost of education, and the challenges of outside obligations during college. The results will also be shared with both presidential campaigns.