UM students visit D.C. to advocate SAFRA loan reform
Several University and Massachusetts students and alumni took part in advocacy events in Washington, D.C., yesterday to support legislation that would significantly change the way the federal government facilitates student loans.
The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (H.R. 3221, also known as SAFRA), introduced to House Education and Labor Chair George Miller, would look to match Federal Pell Grant scholarships to rising costs of living, raising it from just over $4,000 at present to $5,550 in 2010, and to $6,900 by 2019.
It would also simplify the Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) forms by allowing students and their families to apply using the same information that is on their tax returns.
Proponents of the bill claim it will save the federal government $87 billion over 10 years by allowing the U.S. Department of Education to choose lenders based on a competitive bidding process and effectively ending the current Federal Family Education Loan program. Student advocacy organizations nationwide, including local chapters of MassPIRG and the United States Student Association (USSA), have taken up support of the bill.
Michael Kebede, a UMass senior, spoke about his own student debt during a teleconference with Miller, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York Congressman Timothy Bishop and members of the press.
“Federal money makes up the vast majority of my financial aid package,” Kebede said. “State aid has never matched it, and for this reason I support the committee’s financial aid package.”
Jelisa Difo, a UMass senior and USSA member, spoke at a press conference with Miller, Duncan and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“By investing in federal aid programs, SAFRA will ensure that millions of students like me have access to a quality and affordable higher education,” Difo said.
Former UMass Student Trustee Lindsay McCluskey, now vice president of the USSA in Washington, D.C., said in an interview Tuesday that revamping federal funding programs for education would put the U.S. on par with other nations that have matched or surpassed American college graduation rates.
“When you look to other nations that are providing free or very inexpensive higher education, it’s almost entirely through the federal government.”
McCluskey, who as student trustee was a vocal opponent of last semester’s $1,500 fee increase, said that given the dire condition of state budgets, including Massachusetts’, federal money may be the most effective way to increase access to higher education.
“I think that one of the things that has really been clarified to me working at state and federal level is that students and faculty all over the country are fighting these state-by-state battles,” she said.
Chairman Miller said that the bill was created in response to President Barack Obama’s call to action on education reform.
“We’re making these investments because these are the priorities that President Obama has set for his education agenda,” he said.
In addition to simplifying FAFSA and restructuring federal loan programs, SAFRA would also expand the Perkins Loan program, a campus-based program, to other schools and invest over $2.5 billion in “historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.”
A particularly controversial portion of the bill would also put an end to federal loan ineligibility based on prior drug convictions. Under SAFRA, students convicted for drug possession would still be eligible for loans, while those convicted of drug distribution would remain ineligible.
Miller, acknowledging possible opposition to the measure, said it was still open to amendment.
The bill is expected to be voted on by the house today, and Miller said during a teleconference yesterday that he hopes to complete the amendment process for the bill by Thursday so it can go to vote in the Senate and, if passed, land on President Barack Obama’s desk.
“We hope to get it to the President’s desk before the holidays,” he said.
McCluskey said she and members of the other advocacy groups expect the bill to pass the house with relative ease, but that it will likely face opposition in the Senate.
“I think that it’s going to be a considerable fight and students are going to have to gear up and show members of Congress that they need to start prioritizing students over private lenders,” she said.
S.P. Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.
*The original version of this story identified Rep. George Miller as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. The name of the committee is the House Education and Labor Committee. It also misspelled Lindsay McCluskey’s first name.