Students urge lawmakers to support federal student aid

Cornell students stand with U.S. Rep.Tom Reed (R-23rd Dist.) on the steps of the Capitol building.

Cornell students descended on Capitol Hill March 14 for Student Aid Advocacy Day, an annual event offering students the opportunity to engage lawmakers in support of federal financial aid. For nearly 20 years, students have traveled from Ithaca to Washington, D.C. to share their experiences with financial aid and encourage Congress members and staff to maintain or improve financial aid programs.

Student Aid Advocacy Day occurred this year as the House and Senate consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the legislation that governs the majority of federal student aid programs. Changes being proposed with the House reauthorization bill – known as the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act – include eliminating the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant program, placing annual and aggregate loan limits on all students and parents, and phasing out all current student loan repayment plans – including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Kristen Adams, associate director of Cornell’s Office of Federal Relations, organized this year’s event.

“In the current political environment, it is more important than ever that lawmakers hear from constituents on issues that matter to them,” Adams said. “As members of Congress consider reauthorizing HEA, it is critical that students tell their stories about how legislation impacts them.”

The students were a diverse group, with members representing all classes and 10 U.S. states. Their academic experiences were similarly varied, with majors ranging from industrial and labor relations to government to agricultural science. Despite their different backgrounds and interests, all were recipients of federal student aid and came to the nation’s capital with a common goal: urging Congress to support the programs that enabled their education at Cornell.

Estefani Romano ’19, an applied economics and management major, knew she wanted to participate in Student Aid Advocacy Day to give back to the next generation.

“I’m a junior and only have one year left at Cornell, so I’m more concerned about the next generation and what financial aid opportunities they will have,” Romano said. “It is important that legislators be aware of the benefits that come with need-blind federal aid.”

The students spent the day on Capitol Hill, where they visited the offices of New York Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and representatives Sean Patrick Maloney (D-18th), Nydia Velazquez (D-7th), Tom Reed (R-23rd), Kathleen Rice (D-4th), Jose Serrano (D-15th) and Tom Suozzi (D-3rd). Students also met with staff and representatives from their home states, attending a total of 34 meetings throughout the day.

In meetings with Congress members and staff, the students shared their experiences with financial aid. Kenny Escobar ’18, a senior majoring in biological sciences, shared his perspective with staff in the office of Rep. Rice, his hometown congressional representative.

“Most of these federal programs, including loans, grants, and work study, will help students that came from impoverished communities,” Escobar said. “If these students are able to go to schools like Cornell, they can return to their communities and help lift others out of poverty as well. These programs benefit the whole society.”

Said Dana Horowitz ‘19, a student at Cornell in Washington majoring in industrial and labor relations: “I think it is important to link issues related to federal financial aid to the mission of Cornell, reinforcing the idea that any person should be able to pursue any study regardless of financial ability.”

Students also met with Ernie Jolly ’09, the current Legislative Director and Deputy Chief of Staff for New York Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-5th). Jolly told the students to focus on sharing experiences and be willing to engage with those who don’t share similar opinions.

“Even if you might disagree on a policy, your experience is unique and no one can argue with you about your experience,” he said. “Even though you might hear about gridlock in Washington, most of what we accomplish is done in a bipartisan way, so it is important to be able to work with people who hold different beliefs.”

In keeping with tradition, the group ended the day on the steps of the Capitol with Reed, whose congressional district includes Tompkins County. “Thank you for coming to Washington today,” Reed said as he greeted the group. “One is my highest priorities is to make college more affordable for everyone. It’s important that you’re here to share your stories with Congress.”

Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist in Cornell’s Washington, D.C. office.

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