LANSING — Students from the University and Michigan State University gathered on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing July 23 to protest the state’s move to cut the Michigan Promise Scholarship and need-based financial aid.

Ariel Bond/Daily
MSA president Abhishek Mahanti speaks with Channel 6 News at the joint press conference regarding the Michigan Promise Scholarship on July 23rd, 2009, on the steps of the Capital building in Lansing.

The event was co-hosted by the Michigan Student Assembly and the Associated Students of Michigan State University, MSU’s undergraduate student government. More than a dozen representatives from both universities attended the protest, along with government officials.

Kyle Dysarz, ASMSU student assembly chairperson, opened with a remark that addressed how the present issues concerning higher education are so important that they brought two rival schools together.

“It is not every day that you will find a Spartan and a Wolverine standing peacefully alongside each other,” Dysarz said.

As a member of MSU’s student government, Dysarz said he has heard numerous stories about the students and families already struggling to make ends meet who may not be able to afford college tuition if the state continues to slash higher-education funds.

“The reason that we’re here is to talk about a struggling battle for all students — no matter if you’re a Wolverine or a Spartan — (that we) can’t afford to lose,” he said.

MSU raised its tuition 5.2 percent for the 2009-2010 school year, while the University increased tuition 5.6 percent.

Meanwhile, in a move to decrease the state’s estimated $1.7-billion deficit, the Michigan Senate passed a bill on June 23 that cuts the Michigan Promise Scholarship, which provides approximately $140 million to 96,000 students across the state. The bill also eliminates nearly $56 million in need-based financial aid.

Last Wednesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives formed a different set of bills in an attempt to avoid using stimulus funds to reduce the state’s deficit. The plan would keep the Michigan Promise Scholarship but would eradicate other scholarship and financial aid programs such as work-study programs and the Michigan Competitive Scholarships — which are awarded to students based on merit, financial need and ACT scores.

MSA President Abhishek Mahanti spoke to the crowd and discussed how the combination of increasing tuition rates and decreasing financial aid negatively impacts all families, including his own. He said that his family has to pay tuition bills for him and his brother, who will be an incoming freshman at the University this fall.

“Even with the in-state rates in Ann Arbor, these costs have been difficult to handle, and like most families, we’re trying to make it all fit together,” Mahanti said.

He added that the proposed cut of the Michigan Promise Scholarship is disturbing, and would break a promise made to tens of thousands of students who each count on receiving as much as $4,000 in aid.

“It financially awarded high academic performance and provided relief for families like mine that don’t qualify for financial aid but are still feeling this pinch,” Mahanti said.

Mary Clark, chief of staff for Rep. Joan Bauer (D–Lansing), attended the protest and agreed with the student speakers. She said the government should honor the promise grants because they act as incentives to increase the number of college graduates in the state.

“We believe that at this critical time in Michigan’s history it is counterproductive to cut the area that is critical to our state’s economic recovery,” Clark said. “We know that the prosperity of our state and our citizens is directly connected to the number of college graduates that we have in our state.”

Susan Schmidt, chief of staff for Rep. Mark Meadows (D–East Lansing), said she and Meadows also support continuing funding for the scholarship.

“These scholarships help families afford the ever-increasing tuition, and as a mother of two college students who go to U of M … we are feeling a direct effect by these potential decisions,” said Schmidt, addressing the group of students from the capitol steps.

Mahanti said students attending college are Michigan’s greatest assets because they are the ones who will lead the state in the future.

“Legislatures must realize that investing in our students through education isn’t just important — it’s imperative,” he said. “Education needs to be accessible to prospective scholars in the state of Michigan, and by going beyond higher education by encouraging entrepreneurship and developing new businesses within the state, we begin to reverse this brain drain that plagues our nation and our state.”

While Thursday’s protest served as an opportunity for legislators to hear students’ concerns, MSA and ASMSU will be working together in the coming weeks to take further action on the issues of statewide tuition hikes and Promise Scholarship funding. ASMSU has posted petitions on Facebook and Twitter for all Michigan students to sign, and leaders from both organizations will be calling and visiting local representatives, urging them to maintain higher education funding.

Ambreen Sayed, MSA chief of staff, said she attended the event to make the state aware that because of the current economic situation the government’s greatest investment should be in higher education, which would foster growth in the state’s industries.

“When better to start investing in the best and the brightest than right now?” she said.

She added she came to show support for continuing the Promise Scholarship and making sure the state keeps on funding Michigan’s world-renowned institutions.

LSA senior Brady Smith went to the event because he disagrees with the legislature’s decision to revoke its promise made to students in Michigan.

He said retracting the scholarships and financial aid will cause students to attend school elsewhere and not return to Michigan during a time when the state needs people to stay more than ever because of the economic problems associated with the automotive industries.

“Some of these manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, but they can be replaced with vocational and technical training, and the fact that we’re preventing people from pursuing that is a big problem,” Smith said.

He added that public education existed about 20 years before Michigan even became a state, considering that the University was established in 1817 and Michigan became a state in 1837.

“This state has long been committed to excellent higher education, and it’s a sad day in this state when we see that scaled back,” Smith said.

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