April 2, 2009

From East Hill to Capitol Hill:C.U. Students Lobby for FinAid

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — An enthusiastic contingent of about 15 Cornell students spread out across dozens of Capitol Hill offices yesterday to lobby members of Congress for more federal financial aid as part of a University-sponsored trip.
The students shared with House, Senate and education-related committee staffers from both sides of the aisle their personal stories about how financial aid and the rising cost of attending higher education have impacted their lives.
With guidance from Cornell’s Office of Government and Community Relations, the students lobbied for several specific measures, including an increase in funding for the federal Pell Grant program. [img_assist|nid=36508|title=Capital meeting|desc=Cornell students speak with Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) yesterday on the steps of the Capitol as part of a University-sponsored lobbying trip.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Students explained that although Congressional support of the Pell Grant program — which is available for low-income families trying to pay for college — recently increased, funding for the program was stagnant for many years, cutting it’s purchasing power in half compared to the 1970s.
Dianne Miller, director of federal relations in Cornell’s Washington office, said that the University decided to sponsor the Student Aid Lobbying Trip again this year regardless of the budget crunch because of the importance of the program.
“Nobody is a better advocate for student aid than the people who are receiving student aid,” she said. “I can go in [to Congress] and talk about how important it is and [give] pieces of paper that have the number of students who receive aid but if you have a live person in front of you … it’s got way more impact.”
Gretchen Ryan associate director, customer service and community relations, who joined the students in their lobby meetings, said that the trip was important because it forces students to think more critically about how they get their aid.
“There are many students who want to be engaged on the policy side [of student aid],” she said. “Because there are so many funding sources, financial aid is complex and you have to have a basic understanding about each of the sources to influence policy.”
The Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment was also a co-sponsor of the trip.
Students also sought to dispel any perception that Cornell was elitist because of its resources relative to other universities. They emphasized to members of Congress that approximately 45 percent of Cornell students receive financial aid.
“Cornell has a very healthy endowment but it’s not so healthy that it can fund all of its students,” Ryan explained. “We need other sources of funding. The federal portions of aid make up a significant amount of the aid that is distributed to students and it’s important that we keep those lines of funding.”
Cornell’s contingent of 15 students was a diverse group, which included both graduate and undergraduate students as well as students who receive financial aid and those who do not.
Jeremy Flynn ’11 said he participated on the trip because of his longstanding interest in politics and desire to help others.
“Cornell’s ability to bring in students with diverse backgrounds makes the experience at this University truly unique,” he said. “To be able to learn how much of a role financial aid plays in making this possible and then having the honor to advocate on behalf of our fellow Cornellians helps us remain committed to the goals of our founders – any person, any study.”
While it’s easy for one to feel lost among the large, formidable Washington buildings and throngs of other lobbyists with competing interests, most students on the trip felt their lobbying was impactful.
“It was really interesting to see how accessible it was,” Danielle Traylor ’09 said. “It was great to go down and see how you can actually make a difference.”
Andrew White ’12 said he thought the trip produced substantial results.
“[Rep.] Jackie Speier’s staff [D-C.A.] seemed very interested in our idea to revamp the entire FAFSA process, to make it easier for families to actually understand,” he said. “This is a simple way to make the financial aid process easier, with little effect on the federal government’s budget. I would consider this one of the most important results of our trip.”
Alexander Frieden ’11 explained that while the lawmakers with whom the students met had a history of supporting higher education, their presence yesterday was crucial nonetheless.
“It’s important not to let legislative issues that have a very strong bearing on certain constituencies to lapse over time and not get any attention paid to them,” Frieden said. “The only way for Congress to know how people feel is to tell them.”
“It was surprising how down to earth the legislative assistants were,” Michael Pang ’11 said. “They actually cared and understood our concerns and gave us some really good, specific feedback.”
“I hope more people go on the trip next year because it was a really valuable experience,” he added.
In the midst of a packed day of lobbying, the students had the opportunity to tour the private balcony of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Tom Manatos ’02, national trip director and outreach advisor in Pelosi’s office. The day concluded with a photo opportunity and discussion with Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.). Students stayed overnight with fellow students at the Cornell in Washington Center, which was a co-sponsor of the program.