March 6, 2011

Students Journey to D.C. to Lobby Congress for Pell Grant Funding

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As House Republicans work to cut funding for the Pell grant program, a group of Cornell students traveled to Washington, D.C., on March 1 to lobby members of Congress to support student financial aid.

Students can “best put a face on the issue,” Dianne Miller, director of federal relations in Cornell’s Office of Government and Community Relations, said. Miller explained that by meeting in person, students who need financial aid show the personal impact of the budget cut.

Cornell’s Office of Government and Community Relations and the Office of Financial Aid sponsor the trip annually. This year, a group of 17 students bussed to Washington, D.C., and pressured lawmakers to maintain support for the Pell grant program, which the House has proposed cutting by 15 percent, or $5.7 billion.

Michael Mueller ’12, one of the students who traveled to Washington, spent the day Wednesday meeting with members of Congress and their staffs. Mueller said the fact that the group was composed of students, all of whom rely on some form of financial aid, helped them during these meetings. The group returned to Ithaca Wednesday evening.

“[Congressional representatives] really enjoy talking to students. It’s not lobbyists, it’s not people on the payroll talking,” Mueller said. “It’s students who have seen the issue firsthand. Every single person that was there was a recipient of some kind of financial aid, whether it was Pell grants or something else.”

The House budget would reduce the maximum Pell grant awarded to students by $845. Since the financial aid packages for next year have already been determined, the Pell grant cut would strip money that has already been promised, according to Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis. The University or families would have to make up the difference for the upcoming year, he added.

“My hope would be that Cornell steps in and picks that up for families, but we’re squeezed right now,” Keane said.

If the the House budget passes, the University would be faced with three different scenarios: to not step in at all, to have Cornell make up the entire difference, or to offer financial assistance somewhere in-between, according to Keane.

“Which one of those [options] we’ll pick I don’t know, and hopefully we don’t have to pick any of those,” he said. “Our best option is for nothing to change.”

Keane estimated that the cuts to Pell grants would amount to a $1.76 million impact on Cornell, which may or may not be made up by the University.

Jeremy Flynn ’11, who went to Washington,  said the trip not only raised awareness among government officials, but also served as a learning experience for the students who participated in it.

“It was an experience for us, learning how our government works,” he said. “It was cool to go into every office and to talk to people that make decisions for our country, rather than just learning about everything in a classroom. It’s a really unique opportunity for Cornell students.”

While Cornell’s Office of Government and Community Relations has reduced its budget — eliminating subscriptions to publications and cutting ties with organizations that require dues — the University never considered skipping the bus trip this year, said Dianne Miller, director of federal relations.

“I think this is probably one of the best things we do in government and community relations,” Miller said. “It’s the one chance we get to have students in front of members, and it’s a program that we would like to continue. We’re not planning on cutting it anytime soon.”

Original Author: Juan Forrer