Twenty nine Cornellians joined 27 Columbia students on Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with Congressional staffers and lobby for increased federal student aid funding in the annual Student Aid Lobby Day.
“The only way you can impress the need for change is to go to where the decisions are made. We’re taking affirmative action in our own education,” said Anand Toprani ’03, explaining his motivation for traveling to Washington.
Stephen Johnson, assistant vice president for governmental affairs at Cornell, outlined the agenda at a breakfast briefing. He stressed that students should advocate for increasing the maximum Pell Grant by $600, thereby making the highest award $4,350.
“The Pell Grants are the highest priority because they are the building blocks of any financial aid package,” Johnson said.
Last year, over four million students received Pell Grants. Of those federal grants, 2,450 went to Cornell students, totaling $5,309,180 in aid, according to Johnson.
However, he explained that while many in Congress pledge their support for efforts to increase the affordability of college tuition, President George W. Bush’s budget proposal could make future appropriations “really tight.” Bush, aside from proposing a $1.6 trillion tax cut, plans to have his budget grow by less than 4 percent.
Johnson also discussed the need to increase Supplemental Grant funding by $100 million, which would serve as supplementary funds to Pell Grant recipients. The proposals also included a $40 million increase in Perkins Loans, along with a $39 million increase in Federal Work-Study grants. This would bring Federal Work-Study aid to a total of $1.05 billion.
Following the briefing, students headed to the Senate office buildings to impress their agenda upon Senate staffers, the majority of whom were still paying off undergraduate or graduate loans.
Adam Phelps, a staffer for Sen. Robert Toricelli (D-NJ), had promising words for students at the outset of their meeting.
“We agree on every issue,” Phelps said, noting that Toricelli plans to introduce a bill increasing tuition payment tax deductability to $15,000 a year.
Toricelli, who is on the Senate Finance Committee, has repeatedly supported increases in Pell Grants, according to Phelps. His tuition deductibility bill also includes a $1,000 increase for Pell Grant funding, which is “a more significant increase than what Bush asks for in his budget,” Phelps added.
Kevin Price ’03, who was on Work-Study at Cornell last year, told Phelps that the 15 to 20 hours of work per week had only marginal benefits.
“It’s still not enough to really help my tuition. The amount of Federal Work-Study that most students get is not realistic to meet their tuition needs,” Price said.
Jennifer Bond, a staffer in Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s office, also declared her sympathy for students at the beginning of her meeting.
“We have to be concerned about life-long learning. It’s a major national issue,” Bond said.
But she explained that students shouldn’t be discouraged if senators aren’t currently debating student aid funding on the Senate floor.
“I don’t think that because they’re not talking about it means they don’t care about it,” she said.
There are other issues that come up for approval on a routine basis, such as funding for kindergarten through 12th grade programs, that may delay senators’ attention towards higher education funding.
However, a recent Columbia grad student made her needs clear.
“I just graduated from grad school and I’m living in New York City, barely able to pay rent and loans,” she said.
Other students met with Stephanie Sand, a staff member for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). While she would not allow The Sun to report on the meeting, Sand said that Schumer announced earlier in the day his intent to introduce an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution this week. The amendment seeks to make college tuition tax deductible in addition to providing tax credits to college graduates shouldered with debt.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a strong advocate of federal student aid, met with Cornellians after returning from a House vote on Bush’s tax cut plan. “You’ll be happy to hear that 15 minutes ago the Congress passed hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of the people [