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Students Seeking Financial Aid Increases Bring Voices and Presence to Capitol Hill

By Jason Hollander

Rep. Jerrold Nadler ( D-N.Y.), CC'69, responds to a question during a student lobbying visit.

An enthusiastic group of student lobbyists on an annual trip from Columbia, Barnard and Cornell filled the office of Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), CC'69, occupying every couch and chair available. Undaunted by the formal surroundings, they told him personal stories of financial struggle and pleaded for the need to increase federal funding in higher education. The veteran representative nodded as he listened to them and then shared his frustrations.

"Let me tell you, when I went to college, I didn't come out owing $100,000. I don't know how kids do it today," said Nadler, who noted that his own son is beginning the process of applying to schools.

The students then submitted a list of proposals to Nadler asking for increases in Pell Grants, Perkins Loans, Federal Work-Study and Graduate Assistance, among others. Nadler studied the sheet and again nodded his head.

"Well, I support all of these," he assured them. "You don't have to worry about me."

If only it were that easy with every official the students met on April 9. While many did promise to support higher education, the real test will come this summer when President Bush's proposal for level-funding most grants will be voted on in the House and Senate. Though Bush does not propose any reductions to higher education grants, the cost of inflation will make the lack of increases feel like a loss.

That is why after a long day of classes more than 60 Columbia, Barnard and Cornell students braved a pouring rain and heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike to get to Washington, D.C., by night. Early the next morning, they canvassed Capitol Hill, splitting into nine teams and conducting more than 50 meetings in the offices of various Senators and Representatives.

"The budget this year is a tight one and there is great concern among students," said Ellen S. Smith, assistant vice president and director of Government Relations, who has sponsored the trip for the past eight years. "It is important for legislators to see those who receive the financial aid they vote on and understand what a difference it will make to these students and their friends if they do not continue to get it."

Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) speaks to Columbia, Barnard and Cornell students on the Capitol steps during Student Lobby Day.

Smith added that in past years when cuts had been proposed, students and other lobbyists made the difference in how politicians voted on funding.

During a breakfast presentation at a Capitol Hill hotel, information packets were handed out by trip organizer Susan Long, assistant director of Government Relations, and students were offered advice on how to be most effective when meeting representatives from the various congressional and senatorial offices. Speakers urged them to be assertive, yet respectful, when championing the cause for grant increases. A skit was even performed to highlight the best way to act towards the staff members they would meet.

Smith led one group into the first meeting of the day at the office of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Russell Senate Office Building, where they were awed by dozens of personal photos on the walls featuring John F. Kennedy (senior and junior), Jackie Onassis, and other famous members of the family.

They were soon greeted by Jane Oates, Kennedy's education advisor, who listened to their stories, agreed with the requested grant increases and stressed the important role financial aid officers play in making an expensive college available to disadvantaged students. "Why should we be making their jobs harder?" said Oates. "We have to make sure that every student can make a choice of what college to go to."

At Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) office, students spoke with Wendy Katz, CC'99, Clinton's legislative correspondent, who told them she had recently heard that while 2 percent of the government's overall budget is spent on K-12 education, only 0.9 percent is allocated for higher education.

"That is an incredibly sorry statistic," said Katz, who commended the students for making their presence known throughout the Capitol. "The more voices that are on the Hill in support makes a real difference. It's important to encourage your peers to make phone calls and write letters too. We really do tally those things," she told them.

Jessie Daniels, CC'02, knows as well as anyone that the lobbying effort is a valuable one. Daniels, vice president of Columbia's College Democrats, made her third lobbying trip to Washington this year and possessed an insider's perspective after having interned in Nadler's office last summer.

"There is a stereotype that exists that the government is inaccessible to the average person. I think the lobby trip allows students to see first-hand that the stereotype is not true," said Daniels.

One student told a staff member in Congresswoman Nita Lowey's (D-N.Y.) office that despite having good enough grades, she put off going to Cornell for two years because she was afraid of amassing too many loan debts, opting instead to attend a CUNY school and then transfer. She said that while glad to finally be obtaining an Ivy education, she regrets missing those first two years.

Jackie Koppell, a Cornell freshman and member of the Student Assembly, added that lobbying efforts must continue until all students have an opportunity to realize their potential. "Too many bright minds are left behind because they did not have enough money to attend a university that would nurture their talent," she said.

Among the other offices that students visited included Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Felix Grucci (R-N.Y.).

Group leaders on the trip included Cathy Dente, government relations associate, and Mark Collins, attorney in the Barnard General Counsel's Office.

Published: Apr 23, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002


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