Higher Education Alliance Rallies for Student-Aid Cause

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In a flashback to the budget battles of 1995, members of the higher education community are closing ranks to prepare for a looming federal funding showdown this coming fall on Capitol Hill.

The Student Aid Alliance, a lobbying group made up of 58 higher education organizations, is back in action. It hopes to increase the dollars allocated to college financial aid in the fiscal 2000 budget by $1.5 billion above President Clinton's request of $9.18 billion. The current budget sets out $9.15 billion for aid.

But the alliance's members expect a tough fight. With spending caps in place designed to keep the federal deficit in check, higher education may face more challenges than ever in competing for funding--and attention--with popular K-12 initiatives and plans to significantly increase the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which are funded through the larger education, labor, and health budget category.

Stephanie Giesecke of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities says the Student Aid Alliance was formed to build support for higher education's budget needs.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

"No one is talking about higher education programs," said Stephanie Giesecke, the director for budget appropriations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Washington-based membership organization that brought together the Student Aid Alliance. "We decided we better make some noise," she said, "or no one is going to make noise for us."

The alliance is targeting seven areas for increases in the federal budget, including need-based student grants, loans, work-study programs, and a program that offers incentives for states to put more money into need-based aid, Ms. Giesecke said.

"The higher education community was really disappointed in [the president's fiscal 2000 budget proposal] as a starting place," Ms. Giesecke said. "That's why we've turned up the volume."

Getting Attention

The Student Aid Alliance launched a World Wide Web site last month that outlines its agenda and links students, administrators, and activists to a toll-free number that provides the telephone numbers of members of Congress. The site also offers advice on working with the media and preparing press kits. The alliance's lobbying tactics also include opinion polls, focus groups, and issue advertising.

The group has gained the attention of congressional leaders simply by forming, said Constance Ewing Cook, a national expert on higher education lobbying.

In 1995-96, the last time the higher education alliance was assembled, its members stopped a Republican plan to help balance the federal budget by cutting $20 billion over seven years in student financial aid, said Ms. Cook, who is an associate professor of higher education and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

But the alliance hasn't always been so aggressive, Ms. Cook said.

"Prior to the 104th Congress [of 1995-96], the higher education lobby had been pretty low-key and passive," Ms. Cook said. "It used tactics that were used by every lobby, like sending letters and reports to [lawmakers] and testifying before Congress."

Those in higher education did not want to be perceived as yet another interest group begging for federal money for something they believed was in the national interest and already deserving of the spotlight, Ms. Cook said.

The situation changed when financial aid faced threats from the newly elected Republican majority in the 104th Congress, Ms. Giesecke said.

During the 1995-96 academic year, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities organized some 30 higher education organizations into what was called the Alliance to Save Student Aid. With the slogan "Stop the raid on student aid," the group inspired thousands of calls to Congress, as well as student protests, Ms. Cook said. It ran radio spots in the congressional districts of those who supported student-aid cuts, packed committee rooms during hearings on Capitol Hill, and buttonholed members of Congress. In the end, "people said higher education won everything it ever dreamed of," Ms. Cook said.

In the fiscal 1995 budget, for instance, the president requested $6.4 billion for Pell grants and zeroed out both the Perkins Loan Program and the State Student Incentive Grant program, now called the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership, or LEAP, program. After much lobbying, however, Congress authorized $6.1 billion for Pell grants, $158 million for Perkins loans, and $63.4 million for SSIG.

The higher education lobby "played a pretty active role in restructuring funding," said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for House Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "They do good work and that attracts attention from members of Congress of both parties."

The Student Aid Alliance has already been highly influential this year in the push to increase student financial aid, Mr. Klatt added. "We worked pretty closely with them" in developing a concurrent resolution in the House last month that would boost funding for student financial aid, Mr. Klatt said.

In fact, many elements of the House resolution mirror the budget blueprint outlined by the Student Aid Alliance. The Senate passed a similar resolution in April. While such resolutions are nonbinding, they suggest how much money should be allocated to each appropriations subcommittee.

This year's efforts have already been more valuable in some ways than the effort four years ago, Ms. Giesecke said. For the first time ever, the higher education community has aligned its priorities in detail.

Part of that process includes taking into account the needs of the precollegiate system that feeds into colleges and universities, said Becky Timmons, the director of government relations for the American Council on Education, a Washington organization that represents more than 1,800 of the nation's higher education institutions and associations.

"The attention is on K-12," Ms. Timmons said. "It is understandable and necessary ... but we don't feel we have to fund one at the expense of another."

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 18-21

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Higher Education Alliance Rallies for Student-Aid Cause
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