WASHINGTON – Raucous chants about students' rights drifted through the air surrounding Senate Park as a shivering group of would-be lobbyists protested the cost of their education.
“We are here today to make sure our legislators make higher education a priority,but tomorrow,we're taking it back to our campuses,” said Gabe Pentas,a recent graduate of Florida State University,vice president of the United States Student Association.
Pentas,24,was one of more than 100 students representing the USSA who gathered Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill despite near-freezing temperatures and blistering winds to rally for lower costs and higher grant availability for higher education.
“Our main focus is to make education a right,as affordable and accessible as possible,” Pentas said after stepping off the crowded stage. “The time is now to make higher education a priority and increase aid and access for students around the country.”
As the cheers from Pentas's speech died down,Danyelle Shackelford,a junior at Florida State,stepped to the microphone.
“I can't feel my feet,but that's a non-issue,” Shackelford said,her voice quivering and her nose running.
The student,who dreams of becoming a literary professor,told of growing up with a single mother and four siblings.
“I come from a home with a lot of love,but definitely not a lot of funds,” she said. Shackelford described having to work 35 hours a week,despite receiving financial aid. “Though I get academic scholarships,I can't eat those scholarships. … Students shouldn't have to choose between books and food.”
Shackelford urged Congress to make higher education funding a priority.
“If education is key,they need to open the door of accessibility to us,” she said.
Following the rally,student delegations scattered across the Hill with a feverish sense of urgency to lobby their states' senators and representatives.
As the troops assembled by school for their marching orders,USSA President Jennifer Pae bustled between official-looking students wearing headsets,first-time lobbyists looking lost and TV crews bagging their sound bites.
“We're freezin' for a reason,” she said. “We're here today,not only celebrating our 60th anniversary,but to ensure that higher education remains affordable and accessible to millions of students across the country.
“Unfortunately we've seen the Higher Education Act not being reauthorized for the past 10 years,and in that time we've seen millions of students be turned away from the doors of higher education.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,D-Mass.,who chairs the Health,Education,Labor and Pensions Committee,held a hearing Feb. 16 to announce his desire to see the Higher Education Act reauthorized. The act would make more grant money available to needy students and reform federal student loan programs.
The senator is sponsoring bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the act,and he hopes it will move from the committee to the Senate floor by the end of April,according to his press secretary,Melissa Wagoner.
Pae,a 24-year-old graduate of the University of California,San Diego,said she planned to spend Tuesday afternoon accompanying first-time lobbyist to their congressional meetings. She is facing $40,000 worth of debt,twice what she said the average student carries upon graduation.
“We know that this is a huge priority for students across the country,and when they made their voices heard at the ballot box last November,this was one of their top concerns,” she said.
USSA works to protect student programs,help students graduate and minimize their debt level.
Kennedy said in a statement that the average cost to attend a four-year public university in 2005-2006 was nearly $14,000,up from just over $10,000 in 2001. Private colleges ring in at an average of $30,000,up from nearly $27,500 in 2001.
The Project on Student Debt reported in June that two-thirds of graduates of four-year colleges have debt. Their debts average $19,200,up 58 percent since 1993,but nearly 8 percent graduate with $40,000 in debt.
The issue of college affordability is far reaching,extending deep into minority communities. Juliana Guzman,who was born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants,is a 21-year-old senior at the University of Oregon.
“I think a lot of people worked really hard for us to even be here,” said Guzman,who planned to lobby Oregon lawmakers. “Especially for me,as a woman of color,being here is something that didn't happen just because. This is something that a lot of people fought for. And so I feel like this opportunity,not only for me to give back,but also to think about the future of my brothers and sisters who are coming after me.”