Niagara University students and employees met with Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and several other state legislators during Student Advocacy Day Feb. 14 at the Capitol in Albany.

A five-student delegation from Niagara University made a 300-mile trek to the New York State Capitol last week to speak with lawmakers about the importance of universal access to financial aid.

NU annually enlists a handful of students to participate in the New York Student Aid Alliance Advocacy Day, an initiative coordinated by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

This year, Dominic Hannon, Mary McCormick, Aundrea Rogers, Christopher Rogers and Megan Ruh advocated on behalf of their classmates – and the nearly 300,000 students enrolled at independent institutions in New York – for the value of state-sponsored student aid programs.

At the forefront of the discussions that the NU students had with nine legislators and/or top legislative aides were the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and the NYS Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), in addition to the potential consequences of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship Plan.

In each of the meetings, the students shared their personal stories of how access to undergraduate financial aid impacted their ability to attend an institution of higher education. They also emphasized expanding the availability of financial aid for all New York students, allowing them to choose to attend whichever college or university – public or private – best fits their academic, social and career interests.

“Giving students the financial support they need in order to pursue a degree at a college that suits their needs is essential for seeing future generations succeed,” explained McCormick, an NU junior from Avon, N.Y., who’s studying TESOL. “Niagara has opened the door for me to explore so many different opportunities and has shaped me to become a better leader, professional and advocate.”

Approximately 1,200 Niagara University students receive TAP assistance from New York state, totaling nearly $2.7 million. TAP, the state’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 $5,165, 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.

While in Albany, the NU students asked legislators to consider increasing the minimum (from $500 to $1,000) and maximum (from $5,165 to $6,500) TAP awards, re-establishing graduate tuition assistance program, and expanding funding for opportunity programs.

They met with Assemblyman Joseph Errigo, Senator Pam Helming, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, Senator Michael Ranzenhofer, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, aides to Senator Patrick Gallivan, Senator Tim Kennedy, and Senator Robert Ortt.

In 2015-2016, Niagara University provided almost $44 million in institutional financial aid for undergraduate students, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Cumulatively, 99 percent of incoming NU students receive some form of financial aid.

Data indicates that students who study at independent colleges like Niagara University complete their degrees on time at a higher rate, thus reducing tuition costs and getting them into the job market faster. For example, Niagara University’s four-year graduation rate is 62 percent, 5 percent higher than the independent sector and 12 percent higher than SUNY schools.

Hannon, who will graduate in May with a communication studies degree, said that financial aid made it possible for him to attend NU, where he’s experienced tremendous social and professional growth. He made the trip to Albany to help ensure that the next generation of students, which includes his brother, a high school senior, will have similar opportunities to choose whichever college offers them the best opportunity for success and economic mobility.

“Many students rely on financial aid to achieve the education they desire and need to make their wildest dreams come true,” said Hannon, of South Buffalo. “By investing in future college students, we can transform these individuals into members of society who are willing to contribute, collaborate and aim to change the world for the better.”

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