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On the Hill


Political wins can bring financial gains for college students.


By Cynthia McCabe


Standing in front of Macomb Community College in Michigan last year, shirt sleeves rolled up, President Obama laid out his goal: By 2020, America will once again produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. The next day, Rep. George Miller (D-California) introduced legislation that, when passed two months later by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, provided the financial framework to help realize that goal, by making it easier for students to pay for and stay in college.

In those first 24 hours and the months that followed, college students saw that they had powerful allies willing to put their education before such special interests as the for-profit student loan industry. Those students were reaping what they had sowed months before on the campaign trail, when they mobilized across the country to elect pro-public education candidates at the state and national levels.

Take Jessica Brauer, a 23-year-old education major at Doane College in Nebraska. Brauer admits that she didn’t have the slightest interest in politics when she arrived on campus as a freshman. It wasn’t until she attended NEA’s 2007 Representative Assembly—where activism during the upcoming election season topped the agenda—that she learned about the connection between politics and the issues affecting her life, especially education funding and student loans.

“I've had several friends who've had to drop out of college entirely simply because they couldn't afford it, even with scholarships and loans,” says Brauer, a member of the NEA-Student Program. “And I know of high school classmates who didn't even consider college for the same reasons.”

Instead of getting frustrated, Brauer joined NEA’s “Got Tuition?” campaign for college affordability and began holding her elected representatives and candidates accountable for their actions. “If we don't give ourselves a voice, then issues that are important and directly relevant to us will get ignored,” she says.

Jessica Brauer learned about rhe importance of political activism at the 2007 NEA Representative Assembly.

Photo by Todd Depue

But this past year, there was no ignoring the concerns of college students. The House’s Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act cuts banks out of the student loan business as middlemen and instead puts the federal government in charge of directly lending to students. That saves $87 billion over 10 years. Under the Act and President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, nearly $77 billion of the savings is invested back into education by improving student aid programs and facilities (see box).

With a $40 billion allocation, the legislation brings the biggest spending boost to Pell Grants for low-income students since the program was created.

“This is building on what is clearly an orchestrated effort to get student aid up to where it needs to be,” says Nancy O’Brien, a lobbyist for NEA, which has supported similar efforts for years.

The Act provides money for grants to community colleges to help students complete their studies, and funds to repair and modernize the facilities. And the legislation provides for a more effective environment for teachers, with investments in K-12 school construction and early childhood education.

But now the Senate must take up its version of the House bill in order for the benefits to come to fruition. That means NEA student members must demand action from their representatives.

For students wondering how they can possibly squeeze political activism into a schedule already packed with classes, studying, student teaching, and the occasional party or basketball game, it can be as simple as a phone call or email. At NEA’s Legislative Action Center, you can email your representative.

Register to vote and use that vote to support pro-public education candidates.

“Young members can do many things to help insure we maintain and expand the current positive political environment for students, higher education, and teachers,” says Randy Moody, NEA’s manager of federal advocacy. “Hold those public policy-makers accountable after they are elected by insuring they address the issues important to you."

Victory on Capitol Hill

There are big gains for college students in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act passed last year by the House of Representatives and in President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, including:

  • Higher Pell Grant scholarship of $5,550 in 2010 and $6,900 in 2019
  • Lower interest rates on need-based, subsidized federal student loans
  • More access to Perkins loan program by expanding it to every U.S. college campus
  • Shorter, simpler FAFSA form that makes applying for financial aid easier
  • New college access and completion programs to help students stay in school and graduate
  • Innovative partnerships between colleges, businesses and job training programs to help students get real-world experience and skills
  • Free, high-quality, online training and high school and college courses
  • A new $2.5 billion fund dedicated to community college facility investments.

Source: U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, The White House Office of the Press Secretary


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