Jeannine Alsous earned a presidential scholarship, an academic competitiveness grant and other merit-based awards from her efforts as an honors student at Lewiston-Porter High School. To help pay her way through college, she lives at home with her single mother, works between 30 and 40 hours a week, and takes out approximately $5,000 in Stafford Loans.
Yet the Niagara University sophomore readily admits that she wouldn't be studying on Monteagle Ridge if it weren't for the need-based financial aid that comes from New York's Tuition Assistance Program and the federal Pell Grant Program.
"Financial aid is what enabled me to come to NU - it's that simple," said Alsous, who juggles a 16-credit schedule and membership in seven university clubs with her employment responsibilities. "I come from a household that doesn't make enough money to cover the cost of tuition. Without a Pell Grant and TAP, I would be at a community college right now."
Maintaining current levels of undergraduate financial aid was the primary item on the agenda for the hundreds of student government leaders - like Jeannine, a sophomore senator - who met with New York state representatives during Student Lobby Day on Feb. 8. The event, which is held annually in Albany's Legislative Office Building, is organized by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, a statewide association representing the public policy interests of more than 100 independent colleges and universities in New York.
Five members of Niagara University's Student Government Association made the expedition downstate to make their voices heard regarding the importance of financial aid programs, especially TAP and Bundy Aid, a program that provides direct unrestricted financial support to independent postsecondary institutions in New York.
While in Albany, the Niagara contingent met with Assemblyman John Ceretto, Sen. Mark Grisanti, Sen. George Maziarz, an aide to Assemblyman Micah Kellner and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger.
Students who volunteered to make the trip on behalf of NU - Alsous, Christopher Zukas, student body president; Brian Campos, a senior senator; Jason Fischer, principal commuter representative; and Claire Sukiennik, freshman class president - are either beneficiaries of TAP or know classmates who are, and acknowledge that the availability of such funding was a significant factor in their decisions to come to Niagara.
"When I got the phone call to come to Student Lobby Day to talk about TAP, it was really coincidental, because I was literally holding my tuition bill in my other hand, so I could see exactly how much of a benefit I was receiving from the program," said Zukas. "That's several thousand extra dollars that I would have had to take out in loans - loans that I'd be paying back for decades."
TAP, New York's largest grant program, helps eligible New York residents attending in-state postsecondary institutions pay for tuition. Depending on the academic year in which the student begins study, an annual TAP award can be up to $5,000, depending on the applicant's and his/her family's taxable state income. Because TAP is a grant, it does not have to be paid back.
More than 50 percent of Niagara's undergraduate population receives assistance through TAP, with an average annual award of $1,882. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo's preliminary budget did not propose any new cuts to TAP, there are reductions from 2010 that will affect graduate students and those attending two-year schools.
Another issue of concern to Niagara University is the proposed cut to Bundy Aid. Cuomo is calling for a 10 percent abatement this year to a program that is already reeling from years of reduced state funding. At present, Niagara receives an estimated $360,000 annually in Bundy appropriations, all of which is used to support student financial aid.
"On the surface, it appears that Governor Cuomo recognizes the importance of student financial aid programs as his budget calls for TAP funding to continue at its current levels," said Mary Borgognoni, who serves as Niagara University's associate vice president for academic affairs and chaperone of the yearly trip to Albany. "However, the proposed cuts to Bundy Aid would severely impact the amount of assistance that private colleges could offer to prospective students. Given the present economy, we also know that a governmental budget can change quickly, so we want to be sure that, if it does, funding for financial aid will not be victimized."