Over the weekend of March 23rd, instead of heading home for Spring Break, 8 UC Merced students packed their bags and headed to Washington, DC for the United States Students Association’s (USSA) 43rd Annual Grassroots Legislative Conference. ASUCM Executives Jonathan Ly, Alex Ela, Keith Ellis, Damion Harriman, and Arrash Abri, along with ASUCM Senator Jacob Malone and students Alma Fausto and Saema Adeeb flew to Washington D.C., in hopes of helping shape a federal budget that boosts higher education funding. The students were briefed on different legislative issues on the federal level to prepare for lobby visits with the Central Valley’s representatives.
This year’s conference was centered on the passage of H.R. 3826 in the House of Representatives and S.2051, which seek to keep the Federal Stafford Subsidized loans at an interest of 3.4% instead of letting it expire and doubling to 6.8% this coming July. Federal Subsidized Stafford Loans are loans that are available to students regardless of need. The loans do not incur interest that must be paid off by the student until after graduation, which includes a 6 month grace period of no interest after graduation for students to find work. Without H.R. 3826, these benefits would no longer be available to students.
Another issue the students pushed for is an increase in funding for institutions that are classified as Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). UC Merced, which currently follows the 30-30-30 Plan (30% Caucasian, 30% Asian, 30% Hispanic/Latino) qualifies for Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) funding (an institution with >25% Hispanic students) would benefit from such an increase. This would also help provide funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Asian and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (APISI) across the nation.
The list of requests also included a raise in the maximum amount of the Pell Grant award, from $5,550 to $5,635, an increase of $85. During the Fiscal Year (FY 2012) budget showdown last year in Washington, D.C., part of the Pell Grant funding to keep it at the maximum reward was to completely eliminate the Subsidized Stafford loans for Graduate Students. With the GOP pushing stiffer cuts from last year in this year’s budget, introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan, many programs will be on the chopping block, and whether or not education will receive the funding requested by Pres. Obama is uncertain. Pres. Obama’s request includes the increase to Pell Grants, but does not have the same level of increases to the Federal TRIO Programs, or MSI’s funding. TRIO consists of Talent Search (TS), Upward Bound, and Education Opportunity Centers (EoC), which help students from underrepresented communities get into institutions of higher education.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza , Rep. Jim Costa, Rep. Devin Nunes, Rep. Jeff Denham, and Senator Barbara Boxer’s offices were visited by the UCM Delegation in hopes of garnering the support in the House of Representatives and Senate for the legislation and funding requests, respectively. After the visit to Rep. Cardoza’s office, he agreed to become a co-sponsor of HR 3826 and push for its passage in the House. Rep. Costa’s office had previously signed onto a letter which endorsed and sought passage of President Obama’s request Education budget. Rep. Nunes and Denham’s office could not commit at the time, but were more than willing to look into the proposals and reply back to the students.
The trip, in my opinion, was a resounding success. We succeeded in many aspects: Rep. Cardoza agreed to co-sponsor H.R. 3826, we made UC Merced’s presence known to the Federal Government, and the students who attended are going to be able to come back to campus and contribute to the funding conversation in a positive manner.