Back to the USSA
Against this backdrop, USSA has turned out the one resource it can count on: its base. In early October, as part of Raising Pell, a weeklong campaign to support SAFRA, students made more than 1,200 phone calls to senators. Since May, USSA students have lobbied 150 members of Congress in direct meetings. The group also retains a full-time lobbyist and has worked to cultivate close ties with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other key legislators, conducting joint press conferences and rallies.
Of course, as Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers notes, for members of Congress it's easy for USSA to "very quickly turn into a prop--warm and fuzzy and positive but without substantive influence." That said, Nassirian thinks USSA's presence "scares the bejesus out of the opposition, because they're reminders of what's really at stake here: students, not lenders." In recent legislative sessions, USSA students have testified at hearings and served on various rule-making teams at the Education Department, including a rule-making committee working on lender regulations in the Higher Education Opportunity Act this past spring.
The USSA may be outgunned, and its leadership frequently in flux: the DC-based staff turns over every two years. But for students seeking direct representation in Washington, says Nassirian, there simply isn't anyone else like USSA at the table.
Outside Washington, says Paul Loeb, a historian who's worked to chronicle student activism, one of USSA's functions is less obvious but still crucial: tuning students in to DC policy movements that might otherwise dodge public scrutiny. Campus "administrations aren't out there telling students what's going on, and the media isn't covering it," says Loeb.
Victor Sánchez, a senior at UC, Santa Cruz, and president of the University of California Students Association, agrees. "Without USSA, we wouldn't have the information to effectively organize on student issues," he says.
USSA faces internal challenges: its student government-based model of membership, for one, has liabilities. Not all students counted as members are aware of their campus's affiliation, and occasionally the group attracts censure for seeming too remote. At the same time, though, historian Angus Johnston--who recently completed a dissertation on USSA--argues that USSA's structure is mostly a virtue. "In the '60s, folks could read about SDS in Newsweek and just declare themselves a chapter," he says. And while SDS self-immolated in the late 1960s, says Johnston, "USSA remains accountable to a specific membership, who pay dues and have a real stake in its future."
In the meantime, USSA's tighter legislative focus on student aid has helped minimize infighting over political identity, which straddles a diverse, sometimes fractious constituency. During the organization's National Student Congress in 2008, conservative delegates from the University of North Carolina Association of Student Governments were booed for opposing internal rules that require a certain number of campus delegates to be female, minority, working class or queer. "We didn't feel terribly welcome," says T. Greg Doucette, a recent North Carolina graduate. (The group withdrew from USSA earlier this year, citing financial as well as political concerns.)
At USSA's National Student Congress in July, though, the group's top legislative priorities--SAFRA and the DREAM Act--were passed by delegates with unanimous consent, something almost unprecedented in the group's history. "We're working hard to build collective power across all our campuses," says Lindsay McCluskey, USSA's current vice president. "That includes conservative as well as liberal students."
As someone who grew up in an overwhelmingly Republican town in Minnesota, Josh Mann, a senior at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, says his experience with USSA is a testimonial to "how the organization can really change people." Before he joined USSA, he says, he'd never been politically active, but his involvement--he's been both a board member and an advocate for the past three years--has been "eye-opening."
"Sometimes it's not until you have the opportunity to get involved with a group like USSA that you see what power you can have," he says. Mann says that after he graduates he wants to keep working for USSA: first as a staffer in DC, then someday as an elected official.