Tuition hikes turn students into lobbyists

Rented two weeks ago at a dirt-cheap rate, the North Carolina Student Association's suite of offices is still strictly utilitarian. The blinds are drawn and a jar of salsa (expiration date unknown) holds a prominent place on the bookshelf. And are those cookie crumbs on the desk?

Accustomed to running the student lobbying group from his car trunk and holding meetings literally on street corners, Jonathan Ducote, perhaps the most powerful student leader in the state, admits he hasn't gotten used to his new - and quite spacious - digs.

But with his association's first-ever office now open, a swell of money from a new $1 student fee coming in, and the Capitol only a mile down the street, Mr. Ducote has a bold new agenda for North Carolina's 165,000 public-university students: Engaging lawmakers directly to guarantee that state-school tuitions won't escalate in the face of budget cuts.

Ducote is aiming high. "With this as headquarters, we'll wield the same power as the tobacco lobby in five years," he proclaims.

This still being Tobacco Road, his attitude may be a bit cocky. But in an era of deep budget woes for states, Ducote's campaign to make "friends" with important lawmakers heralds the arrival of students not just as activists, but as lobbyists.

Advocating for the next round of students

Donning ties instead of tie-dyes, record numbers of student lobbyists this month descended on state capitols from Albany to Santa Fe. Oftentimes, these new lobbyists aren't trust-funders or moneyed intellectuals, but first-generation college students who come from families making less than $40,000 a year.

"What this is all now about is fair and affordable access for not just us, but for the next generation of students," Ducote says.

For many of these students, the stakes are high. If they want to stay in school, their protest must succeed. Thus motivated, many are getting on buses at 5 a.m. to get to the capitol on time. What's more, they're coming with briefcases and dressed to the nines - even though, for many, that may mean digging deep into the closet.

"There's a high level of activism by students from low- and moderate-income families, and that's where you're seeing students in ties," says Abe Lackman, former budget director for the New York mayor's office and now president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in Albany, NY. "One student who lobbied five senators in Albany last week gave a very moving speech where she said her diet consists of grilled cheese and ketchup sandwiches."

To be sure, ruddy-faced lettermen, many of them aiming at political careers, have been a feature in legislative chambers since the 1970s. And, certainly, their placard-waving classmates usually get most the press, especially as a US-led invasion of Iraq looms. But what's happened in the past two years, experts say, is a steep increase in the amount of time that music and forestry majors are spending in dark-paneled legislative offices.

At Lobby Day in Albany a few weeks ago, a record 1,000 students showed up to argue against proposed cuts in grants for poorer students.

In Santa Fe, where public-university officials are considering a tuition hike, a record number of student lobbyists came to the Capitol recently and handed out ramen noodles to lawmakers as conversation pieces.

In Maryland, 300 community- college students trekked to Annapolis on Feb. 12 to decry a proposal to cut state funding for two-year colleges next year. The lobbying event was a first for Maryland's community colleges.

And here in Raleigh earlier this month, 750 students - triple the number from a similar event two years ago - walked the Legislative Building, hammering home a single point: That university spending isn't just a frill, but a solid investment in the state's economy. The backdrop: the legislature is trying to find ways to close a $2 billion budget sinkhole.

"People like me can go make the case all day long, but it's really an added boost when a constituent can sit in a legislator's office and look that person in the eye," says Stephen Johnson, the vice president of government affairs at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Civility reigns

To these activists, the issues are too complex to handle with street protests.

Here in North Carolina, the tactics have changed dramatically. In 2000, thousands of students succeeded in freezing a proposed tuition hike by marching on the Legislative Building. At one point, they charged into the chambers, cornering legislators in the halls and exchanging unfriendly sobriquets.

This month, students showed a more professional air. Instead of lobbing insults, they lobbied quietly in hallways and in the chambers.

"The group that came to the legislature had coats and ties on, and it was very civil and they talked politely to the legislators," says Mark Fleming, the chief lobbyist for the University of North Carolina system. "I almost felt like somebody had really been coaching them, and it wasn't me."

Ducote, a burly N.C. State junior, is studying to be an accountant, not a politician. But his laid-back attitude suggests more than a hint of savvy: Starting with a car-trunk model of business, the association he leads now has 25 volunteer lobbyists spending time at the Capitol every week.

On this particular day, Ducote's shirt may be a bit wrinkled. But when he has to, he's glad to don a tie and make small talk with chancellors, legislators, and university presidents. And before any legislators actually visit the new HQ, Ducote vows he'll clear the bookbags and soda cans off his desk.

"For us to be taken seriously, we have to put on a professional face here and there," he says with a grin.

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