Students tossed blue graduation caps into the air outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, though it was more of a symbolic statement than a celebratory act.
“If we can work to increase funding for grants, [graduation] can be a reality for anyone who wants an education,” said Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the United States Student Association,  which co-sponsored a rally to drum up support for increased federal spending on higher education.
Pushing that agenda has been an uphill battle of late, with student aid and grant programs again on the chopping block in the Bush administration’s proposed 2007 budget,  after a year in which Congress passed 2006 spending legislation that held most financial aid programs at their 2005 levels and a budget reconciliation measure that raised some rates and fees for student loans. But the student lobbyists appeared resolute during National Student Lobby Day, the culmination of a four-day conference in which more than 300 students learned about higher education issues and took their message to members of Congress.
The rally occurred as the Budget Committees in both houses of Congress prepare this week to draft their 2007 budget resolutions, which will provide a big-picture blueprint for how much money the various Congressional spending subcommittees will have to distribute to the programs under their control.
Among the most pressing concerns, many students said, is the state of Pell Grants. (The association’s latest rallying cry is “Grant Aid Now!”) The Bush budget would hold the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050 for the fifth year in a row.
“In a time when tuition is skyrocketing, keeping level funding just isn’t cutting it,” said Jennifer Pae, vice president of the student association. She represented the group as a speaker at the rally, which was sponsored by a coalition of organizations, including the U.S. Student Association, known as the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities.
“We’re delivering a message to Congress that it is a time for a change,” Pae told a crowd of more than 100 people. “We need to stand up for access to higher education and ensure that education is a right, not a privilege.”
Recent Congressional actions on student aid, including the narrow passage of the budget reconciliation law in December,  have been “extremely difficult for students across the country,” Pae said. “Considering the [reconciliation] vote was so close, we are using this as momentum. I don’t see this as a setback.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, who chided Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last week during a Congressional hearing,  notified the crowd that he is offering an amendment to the budget resolution that puts more money back in education.
Harkin singled out Upward Bound  as a program that he has a particular interest in saving. The budget would eliminate funding for the program, as well as others such as Gear Up that reach out to students who are interested in college but who might not know about their options.
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) also spoke at the rally.