April 7, 2006

Columbia, C.U. Students Lobby Washington for Aid

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WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, eleven Cornell students joined two-dozen Columbia students in Washington, D.C. for an annual tradition in which Cornell and Columbia together lobby Congress and urge both representatives and senators to make higher education a priority.

“All who academically qualify should be able to go to college and the college that is right for them,” said Nicholas Moustakas, senior government relations associate at Columbia University, when speaking to the student lobbyists over breakfast.

Several different financial aid programs were the focus of the day. Pell Grants, which are the foundation of low-income students’ financial aid packages, were one of the many forms of financial aid highlighted. The Pell Grant has been capped at $4,050 for the past four years, and the “President’s budget wants the maximum to stay the same for the fifth year in a row,” Moustakas said.

17 million Americans are involved in higher education currently, and 10 million benefit from some form of financial aid. At Cornell, 49% of the students receive financial aid, and at Columbia and Barnard, about 60% of students receive financial aid.

Students were told to persuade congressmen to vote no on the budget unless Rep. Mike Castle’s (R-Del.) amendment, which adds $7 billion to education, is added.

Though the wake up call was early, students seemed eager and happy to lobby Congress based on the platform given to them.

“Students should be able to get into any college because they’re smart and not because they’re rich,” said Seth Flaxman, president of the Columbia University College Democrats, while waiting for his meeting in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office.

When the meeting began with Schumer’s legislative aid on health, education and welfare issues, Patrick Barker, a junior at Columbia, shared his personal experience with financial aid.

“I grew up in Harlem … I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school and am the first male in my family to not be incarcerated … I wondered if I could ever afford to [go to Columbia] … I never thought I could go to Columbia; it was like going to Disneyland … Could I get on this ride? I never thought it was possible, but thanks to financial aid, [I am here],” Barker said.

Students were very pleased with their meeting with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who managed to greet her own constituent, Columbia student Miriam Aarons, an Alaskan native.

The student group was unsure of how the Republican Senator would react to its requests and was pleased to hear her agree that when weighing issues, “education is at the top.”

In response to the students’ personal encounters with financial aid, Murkowski replied, “I’m glad to see a walkin’ talkin’ beneficiary.”

However, when pressed about the cuts to financial aid programs in the President’s proposed 2007 budget, Murkowski explained that it was a matter of competing interests.

“With homeland security needs and the war in Iraq, everything is in a pinch,” Murkowski said.

The student group that talked with Murkowski agreed that the meeting was the highlight of the day.

“We stereotype the Republicans as being against social programs. I thought it was revealing, rewarding almost, that Senator Murkowski opposed Perkins’ cuts,” Barker said.

“[Murkowski] was the only person we could pull. Either she was going to fight us or try to appease us. She tried to convince us she was on our side,” Flaxman added.

Students also met personally with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who agreed that financial aid “doesn’t work as well as it used to.”

“It’s not right … Republicans want to increase the Pell Grant but not in reality,” Nadler said.

When asked how often students come meet in his office and the effect they have, Nadler responded, “Not that many. Normally [we just see] Columbia and Cornell once a year.”

“The effect I think is cumulative. … The debate here can get very theoretical. To get young people who come here and say what it means to them … over time it keeps it more real … reminds you [that these are] real people, not just figures on a page,” Nadler said.

In Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) office, students met with the legislative director, Jonathan Sheiner, who emphasized the necessity of either swaying moderate Republicans or winning Democratic seats in the House in the 2006 elections.

“We can only sing as loud as our votes will take us. … If we sing together as Democrats, then we only need 16 or so [Republicans] to say no to [Republican] leadership,” Sheiner said.

“You guys can vote. You guys can organize. … Hold people accountable for what they’re supposed to do and work against what is the bane of any society – hypocrisy,” Sheiner added.

Students were satisfied with many of the responses they received; however many were disappointed by the overwhelming number of appointments with Democrats.

“I wish we weren’t talking to as many Democrats because that’s preaching to the choir,” Flaxman said.

Though 13 of the 20 House appointments and 10 of the 15 Senate appointments were with Democrats, according to Jacquie Powers, Cornell manager of federal relations, this was not intentional.

“[The appointments] depend on timing and whether the appropriate person is available,” Powers said.

She also explained that for each meeting with an official, Cornell and Columbia want at least one student in the group to be from that senator or congressperson’s district or state.

As a result, meetings could be made only in districts and states representative of the small student group. Additionally, many appointments were canceled at the last minute because students did not show up for the bus ride to Washington.

“Whether or not we were able to change minds concerning school funding legislation … well, it may be too early to tell,” said Jim Glenn grad.

Some students had a more optimistic view of their influence.

“Talking to the congressmen was a rewarding experience because I know that I made a difference,” said Guy Mazza ’08.

Overall though, students found the trip to Washington worthwhile.

As Glenn put it, “the highlight of today was just the experience. I like the fact that Cornell participates in such programs.”

Archived article by Rachel Nayman
Sun Staff Writer