Students take on active roles in financial aid struggle

by Jim Parsons

Daily Cougar Staff

As college costs rise in Texas and across the nation, students everywhere are fighting for assistance to cover the cost of higher education.

While the federal government is inching toward an agreement for the fiscal 1996 budget, financial aid appropriations are holding steady at their 1995 levels. However, those levels of funding are inadequate, according to education advocates.

The numbers clearly show the decline in market value of federal aid over the past 15 years, according to the American Council on Education.

For example, the value of the maximum Pell Grant award has declined by 65 percent since 1980 when adjusted for inflation. Moreover, funding for State Student Incentive Grants has declined 49 percent, and funding for the federal Work-Study program has declined 39 percent in constant dollars.

However, universities struggle just to keep funding at those levels.

"Starting in early 1995, we were looking at severe reductions in the most important (aid) programs and the abolition of some others," said Herb Rothschild, associate director of Public Affairs for the UH System.

"The UH System intends to keep monitoring the issue closely. Student aid remains very high on our federal agenda," he added.

But some even doubt the efficacy of offering aid to students. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March, "To offset (rising costs), schools are not lowering prices; they're giving away more financial aid. That results in (a contradiction): Schools are spending even more to entice students."

Rothschild said, "Insofar as more and more of (student) aid comes in the form of loans rather than grants, it doesn't do the job of making college accessible to the poor."

The United States is unique in that most of the responsibility in paying for a public education here rests on the students and their families, according to a report issued by the Washington D.C.-based Alliance to Save Student Aid.

In other countries, reported the Alliance, the government covers much of college costs. But in America, the report said, "in the last decade, many hard-pressed state legislatures have reduced support for higher education, and families have been confronted with sharp tuition increases at public colleges and universities, which educate almost 80 percent of all undergraduate students."

Many students feel that, since the government is not increasing aid and college costs are rising at an ever-faster rate, they must take matters into their own hands.

"I think what students should do is to use their political strength to make financial aid a bipartisan issue again," Rothschild said. "The goal of the entire education community is to rebuild the national consensus for federal support of education."

Grover Campbell, UH System vice chancellor for governmental relations in Austin, said, "The question people have to ask themselves is whether they want to make an investment in tomorrow's opportunities or yesterday's failures."

To that end, several groups now exist to monitor, assist with and ideally protect financial aid in Washington.

The Alliance, a major player in the fight to save aid appropriations, is an umbrella organization composed of three groups: the American Council on Education, the National Association of Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

UH affiliated itself with the Alliance and with the National Association of Students for Higher Education, a group with more than 1 million members.

UH Students' Association Vice President Kay To said UH's affiliation with NASHE is a valuable resource because NASHE has such a large following and is based in Washington.

Due to the group's location and its strictly financial aid-oriented agenda, SA can get up-to-the-minute information exclusively dealing with action in Washington, To said.

Additionally, UH's legislative monitor in Washington, April Burke, said the System maintains a close watch on governmental operations at the state and federal levels.

To said the new SA administration would put more emphasis on city and state outlets to make UH a recognized player in the aid struggle.

"The emphasis won't be just on Austin, but on Austin and Houston," she said.

According to To, SA plans to meet regularly with the Houston City Council -- something that has not been done by previous administrations. She said this is expected to be an effective move, since many councilmembers are UH alumni.

"It's an ongoing process," she said, noting that the important thing is to let government officials in the city and state know that UH's student body is aware of, and interested in, legislative action.

"We're crawling before we run," To said, but SA's main message to legislators is that "if you can't help aid, at least don't cut it."

Former SA Vice President Dom Lewinsohn said SA has taken an active role in lobbying for student aid, and it is because of the nationwide interest in saving aid that drastic cuts were not implemented.

"Because of the huge outpouring from universities and students, there was very little change" in federal appropriations for aid, he said.

This was true not only in Washington, but also in Austin, said Campbell, noting that the state Legislature touched on several education initiatives in its last session.

Giovanni Garibay, former SA president, made a trip to Washington last semester to participate in a rally to save aid. He also made a follow-up trip to a NASHE convention in Phoenix earlier this year, where discussions with Republican presidential hopefuls were held.

In an editorial column published in The Daily Cougar last year, Garibay wrote, "The SA has formed a campaign to fight back and show that UH students do care and that the University of Houston, with all that it offers, is unique compared to any other state university in Texas."

In 1993, Texas received a total of $1.2 billion in financial aid from the federal government, the fifth highest total amount in the nation. However, Texas students received an average of $1,712 each, which placed them 30th among the states. Students in Indiana received the highest amount per student, with an average award of $12,145.

Brian Heffron, chairman of the Governmental Relations Committee with the Student Government Board at the University of Pittsburgh, said the best way to combat rising costs and declines in student aid is to make oneself heard.

Don't let the government forget that there are students out there who want to make a difference, he said.

"Go into the fight (for aid) as students, not lobbyists. Show the government that you have a personal message and not just a bunch of numbers," he said.

Burke said, "The message I would like to send to everyone on campus is that you can do it. When people hear from students (regarding education topics), that's what really makes a difference."

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