Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Student activists fight to ‘Save Student Aid’

By Marie MacCune

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With a budget proposal by the Republican Party poised to cut $150 billion in financial aid funding, students across the country have joined together under the Save Student Aid coalition.

University of Massachusetts students, through the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, MASSPIRG and the United States Students Association, are among their numbers.

“Save Student Aid was created out of crisis,” said Filipe de Carvalho, director of the Access and Affordability team for CEPA.

“The way that CEPA really got involved was with our affiliation with the United States Student Association,” he added. “I was briefed as a (USSA) board member at one of our board meetings that there were certain proposals rumored at the time to go through – the $150 billion cuts over all and the $90 billion to Pell Grant cuts – and that we needed to mobilize and do something around that.”

According to de Carvalho, when those rumors proved true, CEPA got to work with MASSPIRG, reaching out to the Student Government Association to make calls in order to spread awareness as well as gather signatures for a petition.

Lucas Gutterman, MASSPIRG’s state board treasurer, explained MASSPIRG’s role in compiling a photo petition.

“We have been working to get photo petitions to build public pressure … among students and VIPs so that they actually see the faces of people who are affected by this,” Gutterman said.

He added that the organization even obtained a photo petition from U.S. Representative Jim McGovern.

“Most of our campaigns really do focus on this strict mission where there is a special interest subverting the public interest,” Gutterman said. “In this case, though, in terms of funding public higher education, there isn’t a clear special interest in the way that there is for the Bottle Bill, for example, so it’s more just advocating for students as our constituency.”

USSA hosted its National Grassroots Legislative Convention two weeks ago in Washington D.C., which was attended by both de Carvahlo and Gutterman.

Both discussed the 9,000 signatures petitioning the proposed cuts that were delivered to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by students during the convention.

Students attending the convention not only lobbied against the proposed budget cuts but also for USSA’s Fund the Future Campaign asks.

De Carvahlo explained, saying, “Instead of just saying we shouldn’t cut it, we wanted to frame the conversation as we should increase it and invest.”

He added that 10 students were arrested for blocking traffic in front of the Supreme Court while wearing caps and gowns as part of USSA’s Stop the #RaidOnStudentAid Rally.

Johannes Raatz, former director and current member of CEPA’s Access and Affordability team, discussed what the proposed cuts would mean for students.

“It fundamentally makes the higher education less affordable, less accessible and students will end up graduating with higher debt which will put a drag on the economy,” Raatz said.

He added when students carry more debt, they delay getting married and buying cars and homes, which further adversely affects the economy.

De Carvahlo said, “Anyone who has subsidized loans will literally be paying thousands more on interest while you’re accruing it while in school.”

According to Raatz, “The last two years, the Department of Education has netted more than $100 billion in surplus revenue. Basically they’re profiting off of students and there is no explanation for why this is. We could drop the (interest) rates down and run the program at cost.”

De Carvahlo added that in terms of profitability, the federal student loan program was the “number three entity in the country” for FY13, behind only Exxon Mobile and Apple.

According to de Carvahlo, approximately 8.9 million students are currently receiving Pell Grants.

De Carvahlo said that a goal of Save Student Aid is “to make sure those students are properly accommodated. They are low-income students, that’s the point of the program and we want to ensure that there will be enough funding for them to finish school.”

Raatz compared what’s happening in D.C. to what’s occurring in Massachusetts, saying, “You know a lot of what is happening on the national scale is the corollary of what is happening at the state level.

“Governor Baker’s proposal makes no significant additions to student aid or the Mass. Grants, which is sort of like the Massachusetts version of the Pell Grant, and no additional funding to the schools – and if this gets passed in the House then we are going to see tuition and fee raises here.”

Student activists at UMass have been lobbying for higher funding of public education in Massachusetts, too, with the recent Public Higher Education Advocacy Day which took place at the State House last month.

Raatz said, “Here at UMass, our graduates graduate with more than $28,000 in debt and that’s average, so there are people with way more.”

According to statistical data gathered by USSA, 89 percent of all UMass undergraduates are receiving some form of financial aid through grants or loans. Thirty-six percent of all undergraduates at the University receive Pell Grants.

De Carvahlo does not foresee the passage of a budget reflecting the GOP’s proposal as it is now but does believe funding and students are at a significant risk regardless.

“Will we see $150 billion cut to student aid? Probably not – or no,” de Carvahlo said. “Will we see $90 billion cut to Pell Grants? No. Can this language be used to reconcile all the different proposals to make significant cuts? Yes. And with the current (political) climate, I think that it is very possible that we will be having very problematic cuts.”

Both CEPA and MASSPIRG are in the process of planning events before the end of the semester aimed at bringing awareness to the student debt crisis.

Josh Odam, a member of USSA and a UMass student who attended the rally in Washington, D.C. did not respond to the Daily Collegian’s request for comment.

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.

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