Lobbying for student rights

Activism: Two young men at Anne Arundel Community College take on politics to voice their support of two-year institutions.

March 26, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Michael Corradini is exactly the kind of lobbyist any college would want during these hard fiscal times.

Armed with a brain full of statistics and a smile, the polite 20-year-old Anne Arundel Community College student has visited dozens of state and county lawmakers to deliver a simple message: Invest in your community college.

He is part of a recent surge in activism among students unhappy that community colleges have raised tuition this year, in one case as many as three times over 12 months. Last month, Corradini and nearly 400 other community college students descended on Annapolis to talk to legislators about the issue.

"When we see bright, energetic students like Mike, we're just so enormously grateful," said Anthony G. Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, which organizes the annual advocacy day.

For Corradini, the event in Annapolis was a culmination of months of phoning and writing county and state officials, in a joint effort with AACC student body President Paul Trader, 19.

"The way I approach it is, if they [don't] raise taxes and help our schools out, they're basically causing a tax increase just for the students," said Corradini, who juggles his advocacy work with a full class load and a job as a waiter in an Annapolis hotel.

The statewide average rise in tuition - 3.6 percent a year for the past five years - has been unavoidable, college officials say, because state and local funding has not kept pace with booming enrollment.

And the number of students enrolling in the state's 16 community colleges likely will continue to increase, possibly as much as 37 percent by 2010, in part because of rising tuition and increased selectivity at four-year public and private universities, advocates say.

Wave of activism

Experts say the wave of activism among community colleges is a result not only of tuition increases, but also of changing demographics. There's an increasing sense of school pride as community colleges shed their status as second-rate destinations, and there's the fact that the average community college student is younger today than in the past.

"The older students are busy taking care of their families and working jobs," Kinkel said. "The younger ones, in some ways, have the wonderful luxury ... of really being able to get into it."

The political efforts of Corradini and Trader began in November, after officials announced a midyear tuition increase at Anne Arundel. The college is the fourth-largest community college but had the lowest tuition in the state last year.

By next school year, tuition will have gone up a third time to $1,245 a semester for a county resident taking a 15-credit class load - a 37 percent tuition increase in a 12-month span.

Now, the Anne Arundel students are spreading lobbying beyond their school. The pair has launched an alliance of student associations, enlisting students at Howard, Carroll and Harford community colleges.

"We know that if all the community colleges start working together, it will catch more of an eye and have an effect on the legislation," Trader said.

Student leaders at Carroll Community College say they're excited about the prospect of a group that will address the needs of community colleges, which sometimes are different from those of four-year institutions.

"We just want to bring some of the focus back to community colleges," said Seth Miller, the student association's treasurer.

Trader, who describes himself as the "nice guy" and Corradini as the aggressive, "go-get-'em type," says he sometimes takes a back seat to his friend because he has other duties as student body president that take him away from advocacy work.

That leaves Corradini, by default, as the college's most active and vocal student advocate.

A registered Republican who lives with his parents in Annapolis, Corradini said he grew up a chubby, awkward kid. But since becoming a college student, he has shed unwanted pounds and channeled his childhood feelings of isolation into a desire to help others.

Even without knowing his personal background, there's something about him that lawmakers find hard to overlook.

For example, he carries the Bible to every meeting - along with charts and fact sheets about community colleges. When people ask him about it, he tells them he carries the book because the sight of it calms him if he gets flustered, he said.

Lawmakers also say they are struck by how comfortable Corradini is with the budget and legislative process for someone of his age.

"He was very organized and very convincing, ... very professional in his lobbying," recalled Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

Before meeting with an elected official, Corradini spends hours gathering information on his or her voting record on taxes and public education. He also finds out how many students of voting age reside in that official's district.

Fellow students are amused by the number of facts that Corradini memorizes to make his case with politicians.

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