Students and administrators are combining resources to forge a stronger lobbying effort to push state lawmakers just enough to reinstate the Michigan Promise Scholarship — a popular, merit-based program cut from the state budget on Oct. 30.

Their efforts advocating for an already-killed state program have a renewed sense of vigor of late, brought on by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s recent push to re-heat the debate over funding the scholarship.

Both students and University administrators have a stake in bringing the scholarship back. Without it, students stand to lose tuition funding that they and their families were counting on. For the University, which has pledged to fill the tuition void for students with demonstrated financial need, the program’s elimination carries a hefty price tag — one sure to further complicate an already delicate budget picture for the next fiscal year.

The Promise Scholarship awards Michigan college students up to $4,000 toward tuition over the course of four years, as determined by the student’s score on the Michigan Merit Exam, which is taken in high school. This year, 96,000 students would have been eligible for the awards at a cost of $112 million to the state — 6,172 of which attend the University’s campus in Ann Arbor.

COMBINING EFFORTS

In a series of speeches at colleges and universities across the state — including a stop at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti last week — Granholm called upon students to contact their legislators about the program.

About two dozen University students traveled to the event at EMU in a bus paid for by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs.

Student groups like the Michigan Student Assembly’s Committee on External Relations and the LSA Student Government collaborated with the Office of Student Affairs on providing transportation, according to Jason Raymond, chair of MSA’s Committee on External Relations.

“We’ve been able to come to a mutually beneficial position where clearly the University and the students have a shared goal in terms of bringing the Promise Scholarship back, so it would be crazy for us not to combine our resources,” said Raymond, who also sits on the Division of Student Affairs Advisory Board.

According to E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Affairs, her office was willing to pay for the bus so that students could voice their concerns about the state’s cuts to higher education and financial aid — specifically the Promise Scholarship.

“We often help students as they work to have their voices heard in critical debates that affect them directly, including the current discussion about the Michigan Promise Scholarship program,” Harper wrote in an e-mail to The Michigan Daily.

The University and student groups also worked together in producing videos to be sent to state legislators, in which about 35 students who were eligible for the Promise Scholarship told their stories of how the elimination of the scholarship affects them and their families.

The Office of the Vice President for Communications offered to pay for the videographer and to edit and “professionalize” the videos to be sent to legislators, while MSA and LSA Student Government organized and facilitated the actual production of the videos, according to Raymond.

“We decided this video would be a great way of combining University and student resources to really have an effective way of lobbying legislators,” Raymond said.

UNIVERSITY INTERESTS

University administrators also have a vested interest in having the Promise Scholarship reinstated, as the University has vowed to fill the tuition gap left by the program’s elimination for students with demonstrated financial need, Raymond said.

“It’s essentially going to cost the University money if it doesn’t come back,” he said.

The University has said that this year, it will provide extra financial aid to 1,984 students — those for whom the scholarship would have gone toward demonstrated financial need — out of the total 6,172 University students eligible for the grants.

This amount totals to $2.3 million, and is being paid for by federal stimulus money allocated to the University for this academic year, according to Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for Government Relations for the University.

“For those students who did have the Promise, who are not going to get it this year, their need remains; so we made the commitment and we’re keeping the commitment to those students,” Wilbanks said.

While stimulus funds can serve as a Band-Aid this year, the elimination of the Promise Scholarship and other financial aid and scholarships from the state like the Michigan Competitive Scholarship could make creating the budget for the 2011 fiscal year more of a struggle for the University, Wilbanks said

“It may create a challenge because it’s funding that, right now, we have to identify in the budget process,” Wilbanks said.

But the University cannot predict what the legislature will do for the state’s 2011 fiscal year budget, Wilbanks said, and as such, does not know the exact implications the elimination of the Promise Scholarship will have on next year’s expenditures for the University.

In addition to the University’s efforts in facilitating students’ communication with Michigan legislators, the Office for Government Relations has been corresponding with members of the legislature, in collaboration with other colleges in the state, to stress the importance of the Promise Scholarship for students.

However, their efforts have not yet been successful in convincing legislators to restore the scholarship, Wilbanks said.

While the University clearly has some interests on the line, Wilbanks said the issue is ultimately one between the students and the state government, which is why the University has been aiding students in getting their message across to legislators.

“What we did was to help to facilitate students who own this issue,” Wilbanks said.

OTHER SCHOOLS IN MICHIGAN

The University stands in the middle of the spectrum in terms of what other state universities are doing to make up those missing funds for students.

Michigan State University is covering the funds for all 8,200 students who were eligible for the scholarship for the fall semester — not just those with demonstrated need as the University did, according to Val Meyers, associate financial aid director at MSU. However, MSU is only covering the scholarship amount for those students who demonstrate need for the spring semester, Meyers said.

“Michigan State has replaced the scholarship awards for many of our students,” Meyers said. “So that was our focus rather than concentrating solely on our legislature.”

This replacement of the scholarship money will cost MSU $8 million this year, which the school is also funding through the federal stimulus money, according to Meyers.

Eastern Michigan University on the other hand, is only providing those funds for just over 300 students who “demonstrate the highest need,” said Bernise Linbke, vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at EMU.

Additional funds may be allocated to students on a case-by-case basis, and may come in the form of additional work-study opportunities or loans, Linbke said.

Wayne State University has been working with administrations at other universities to communicate with legislators, specifically members of the Higher Education Appropriations Committees in each chamber, to convince them of how essential the scholarship is for its 3,000 students who are eligible for the scholarship this year, Greg Bird, director of State Relations for Wayne State University, said.

“Many in the legislature talk about the importance of education, but we’ve seen over the past few years their words not match up; their action not match up with that rhetoric,” Bird said. “So it’s important to let them know that this scholarship and any financial aid programming they’ve been cutting is very important.”

Wayne State is covering the funds for all of its students who are eligible for the Promise Scholarship for this year, which totals $1.4 million, according to Bird.

But Bird said if the Promise Scholarship is not restored next year, students will no longer receive that credit in funds from the university.

“Unfortunately, universities, just like families across the state, have come across difficult economic times and the legislature has not only cut funding for scholarships like the Promise, but they’ve cut funding for universities,” he said.

Wilbanks said that while the various university officials and students are trying to galvanize support for the program, history is not on their side.

“We certainly did our work in talking with legislators about the importance of the grants, but at the end of the day, the votes passed in both the House and Senate in the higher education budget that did not include the funds,” Wilbanks said. “And there’s some days the efforts of 15 universities can work miracles; this year, the decisions were made to go in a different direction.”

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