By Victoria Fennell
Cancelled due to snow, Higher Education Lobby Day slated for Albany instead took place a little closer to home. New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) students met with representatives of local politicians to share stories and voice their concerns about higher education and its cost for both students and graduates as the state’s April 1 budget deadline approaches.
Armed with a proposed agenda supporting the funding of, and reinvestment in SUNY and CUNY, students traveled to the offices of Senator Shelley B. Mayer and Assembly Member David Buchwald on March 7 and 8, respectively.
“The goal is really to fight for quality, accessibility and affordability,” said NYPIRG Project Coordinator Elisabeth Lareau. “We’re always fighting against increasing tuition, so that is a frequent piece of the platform.”
With a full schedule, both parties were unable to meet with students directly, instead setting up meetings with Shelly’s chief of staff, Rachael Estroff, and Buchwald’s district office director, Joseph Orlando.
To highlight the struggle that many students face financing their education, a few students chose to share their personal stories with the representatives, including senior theater and performance studies major and global black studies minor Zanneya Pomales.
Unable to attend the meetings, Pomales wrote a statement to be read detailing her hardships in the higher education system.
“Here every semester there has been some bill or fee I have had to pay beyond tuition,” wrote Pomales. “My scholarship is supposed to cover everything including extra money for costs like textbooks but at Purchase it never does.”
Along with the difficulty of finding a job that will accommodate being a full-time student, students without a car available to them also lack reliable transportation to hold down an off-campus job, making not only paying bills a challenge but also saving money for the future.
“I never know if this is going to be the semester I get kicked off campus because I can’t afford it,” wrote Pomales. “I don't know if I’m going to have food today or next week, if I’m going to be homeless when I graduate at the end of the year because I can’t find a job willing to work with my college schedule or to give me enough hours so I can save up to get an apartment this December.”
According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, 58 percent of SUNY undergraduate students graduate with an average debt of $30,346.
“I already had state, federal and scholarships supporting me but that did not cover the cost of tuition and the year-round prep housing I needed,” said sophomore theater and performance major Tess Hurley. “Leaving school was not an option, what can you even do without a college degree.”
Between leaving school or taking out loans, students are getting themselves into debt before even starting life after graduation. While at the time loans help ease the financial burden of being a student with graduation comes the reality that they will need to be paid off.
“So many students joke that we honestly didn’t know what we got into when we signed up for student loans,” wrote Pomales. “None of us have any realistic idea how to pay them off after graduation.”
While there are many financial options available to help students, they don’t all come without strings attached. The Excelsior Scholarship offers an attractive offer to cover the cost of tuition fully but demands that students adhere to their rigorous terms.
“Part of the deal with Excelsior is the 15-credit minimum, but you have to work in New York State afterwards or it becomes student debt,” said freshman history major Sam Andrews. “I don't want more student debt.”
Andrews, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to travel to Hollywood but after graduation will find herself stuck in New York for the amount of time she received the Excelsior Scholarship.
Sympathetic to the students’ struggles, Estroff confirmed Mayer’s stance as a supporter of SUNY reinvestment.
“I can say that she will be an advocate for increasing investment. She really does feel incredibly strongly that we should not be burdening new graduates with costs and repaying loans,” Estroff said. “I can tell you she will push for not increasing tuition and increasing investment.”
Orlando also supported the students proposed agenda on behalf of Buchwald who is the Assembly Member overseeing the district that includes SUNY Purchase.
“I’m sure that David would absolutely advocate for more funding for the SUNY’s and CUNY’s because he has a SUNY in his district. You are all his bosses as David says, since you all live in the district,” Orlando said. “It’s something he absolutely supports, the funding of education.”
While advocating for more affordable education is important, Lareau said that sharing the personal stories of the students would humanize the face of higher education for legislators that may or may not have gone to public colleges themselves.
“Some of them went to public college at a time when it was much more affordable and may not understand the struggle students are facing now,” Lareau said. “It’s important for them to be walked through that personal experience that people have because otherwise it's a subject they may not have access to.”
Overall, the students hope that their efforts can create change to benefit future students so they will not have to face similar struggles and uncertainties.
“College is supposed to help people just starting out in life to become educated so they can become successful,” wrote Pomales. “How exactly is that going to work when I have no home to go to and I’ll be starting my adult life thousands of dollars in debt with no way to pay it off?”