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New Hope in Albany: Students lobby their state government for tuition assistance | The Nation

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New Hope in Albany: Students lobby their state government for tuition assistance

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Lydia DePillis\

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All the action from this year’s conference

Tuesday, February 20

On Tuesday, Feb. 13, 700 students converged on Albany to lobby for more student aid. Most of them were beneficiaries of aid programs with a blizzard of acronyms--TAP, HEOP, STEP--all programs that help disadvantaged students handle rising tuition at schools in New York State. Most of them couldn't have gone to college without this aid, and all of them wanted their younger siblings to have the same opportunity. If bills currently pending are any indication, student lobbyists might get at least a bit of what they came for.

Every year in New York for the last seven, former Governor George Pataki cut financial aid programs for the state's college students in his proposed budgets. In an "annual rite of spring" as a staffer for Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) told Campus Progress, the state legislature has restored funding to the previous year's level--no higher. But with a more progressive governor, Eliot Spitzer, now in the statehouse, college students in New York are hoping that will change.

Funding for the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), created in 1974 and serving 335,000 New York students each year, hasn't increased in 16 years for students without family support, and in 20 years for graduate students. TAP grants have fallen behind the rate of inflation, according to statistics produced by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU). The Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) gives higher awards to fewer students, plucking kids out of poor areas and putting them through a rigorous five-week pre-collegiate program. Columbia University's 110 HEOP students prepare to read the Iliad before their freshman year; other colleges can choose how to prepare students who arrive on their campuses less prepared than their more privileged peers.

The lobbyists in Albany explained how programs like HEOP allow students to pursue academics while working just one job instead of three, or taking an unpaid internship. And from what I saw--admittedly, a self-selected sample of the most enthusiastic participants in the program--they are all incredibly grateful for the help.

"I can't believe how fortunate I am to get all this funding for college" said Columbia sophomore Da Quan Rong, who emigrated from China at the age of eight.

Students from 54 colleges met first in "The Well" a large, green marble atrium in the state legislative office building, which CICU had tastefully matched in banners emblazoned with the initials of their cause (no public universities were present; SUNY schools have their own lobby days). For two hours, college program administrators and HEOP alumni ran the rally as part revival meeting and part strategy session. Student speakers brought the crowd to its feet and crusty bureaucrats coached them on how to talk to lawmakers. The majority of the students giving testimonials were men of color, which offended my feminist sensibilities until one speaker presented a different way of looking at it: With the odds of under-privileged African-American men graduating from college being so low, the more of them who could demonstrate that these programs make a difference, the better.

What, exactly, were the students asking for? CICU demanded a 20 percent increase in HEOP awards, as well as increases of TAP aid. As a lobbying organization, CICU understands that students can often make their case better than administrators, and deploys its young foot soldiers wisely. Teams of students and administrators trooped from office to office, honing their pitch with each successive visit. The legislators (or, more often, their staffers) sat attentively, making sympathetic sounds and sharing their own stories. We knew Governor Spitzer hadn't cut college student aid in his budget proposal. For the first time in seven years, there's room for legislators to actually make the situation better. And at one session, we learned that the Republican chair of the State Senate Higher Education Committee, Kenneth LaValle, had already proposed a bill increasing the allocation for TAP as well as forgiving student loans. Even the New York State legislature, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School has rated the most dysfunctional in the nation, would have a hard time stopping that politically popular proposal.

Even some fiscally conservative legislators support the programs on the grounds that they expand the tax base and keep young people in New York. "When I look at every one of you, you know what I see" one legislator asked the crowd? "A taxpayer."

But nothing comes easy in Albany--the whole time, we were constantly reminded that students aren't the only ones lobbying for aid. As we listened in The Well, people walked slowly by with large red hearts (this was the day before Valentine's Day) that read "Don't Break Our Hearts--Fund Public Housing." The civil servants we visited were uniformly gracious and supportive; no one dislikes education. But smiles won't pay off loans--it's the money that matters.

Lydia DePillis is a sophomore at Columbia University, where she runs the Bwog (www.bwog.net), the blog of The Blue and White.

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