Back to the USSA

Back to the USSA

The country’s oldest student association has its eyes on the prize–student aid reform.

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JAKE STILWELL, USSAJelisa Difo, of the University of Massachusetts, speaks at a rally for financial aid reform.

Among the Washington-based passel of higher-education lobbyists–universities, banks and student lenders–the United States Students Association (USSA) is an anomaly: a student-run organization advocating for students. Tucked away just north of fastidious K Street, its office has the motley feel of a college dorm, if an exceedingly well-organized one. Whiteboards cataloging their goals (“Retweets–30 by the 27th!”) in careful grids line the offices, where a newly ensconced, ebullient staff of ten make plans and take calls.

Founded in 1947, USSA has a vivid, tumultuous history: one that spans infiltration by the CIA and organizing on everything from civil rights in Atlanta to the war in Vietnam. The group has been the training ground for generations of activists and leaders, including Tom Hayden, Representative Barney Frank and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. Though it has rarely been at the vanguard of the student left, its history closely tracks the down-to-brass-tacks trend in post-1990s student activism. In recent decades USSA has stepped away from gauzy declarations of belief on all matters foreign and domestic, and instead defined itself as a ground-level, policy-savvy organization bent on advocating one goal: increased access to higher education.

And following Obama’s election, USSA is starting to feel like it’s in the driver’s seat.

“Right now, our challenge is to persuade other millennials that we no longer have to fight for crumbs,” says USSA president Gregory Cendana, who was elected in July at USSA’s most recent gathering. “It’s a time to really ask ourselves, What do we want from our elected officials?”

Of course, the challenge USSA’s members have laid out for themselves is steeper than that: overhaul the student lending system and pass the DREAM Act–granting undocumented students who pursue higher education a path to permanent residency–and all in just the next twelve months. Both are heavily embattled measures that have stumbled in Congress for years.

But that’s not slowing USSA down. Nationwide, USSA claims a membership of 4.5 million students on campuses that have elected to join through their student governments, which pay dues and help frame policy. Since 2006 membership has doubled–in part reflecting a growing strength in the state-based student organizations that form USSA’s spine.

Though USSA was once known for publishing thick booklets containing an A-to-Z platform, the organization has narrowed its sights to advocate more strictly for student aid. Between 1982 and 2007, the costs of college fees and tuition rose by 439 percent. Last year, the average debt for graduating seniors who took out student loans ballooned to $23,200, up 24 percent since just 2004. Meanwhile, Pell Grants–once the keystone of federal student aid–which covered more than 80 percent of the cost of a public four-year education in the 1970s, today cover only 35 percent.

Like other student advocates, USSA is hoping that the new administration–even beset by two wars and an economic crisis–can help reverse the tide. Obama’s stimulus package, for example, contained a massive $115 billion infusion into state education budgets, as well as into Pell Grants, tuition tax credits and other programs. While the funds haven’t stanched ongoing layoffs in the education field (including 143,000 in the past five months alone), the measure represents the government’s largest-ever single investment in education.

What’s more, the White House has been unafraid to take on an issue that has stymied Congress in years past: subsidies for student lenders. Out of the $66 billion borrowed in federal loans during the 2007-08 school year, about 80 percent was disbursed through banks and private lenders that participate in the Federal Family Education Loan program. Critics of FFEL note that by assuming private lenders’ risks, the government is inflating their profits on the taxpayers’ dime. Obama backs eliminating FFEL in favor of lending directly from the Treasury, bypassing the private middleman–a measure previously championed by Senator Ted Kennedy, and one the Congressional Budget Office says could save $47 billion to $87 billion over the next ten years.

Recent public revelations about how the system has bred too-cozy relationships–and kickbacks–between lenders seeking preferential access and campus financial aid officers have given such reform efforts greater vigor. In September the House voted to end FFEL by approving the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a bill that calls for any savings to be reinvested in community colleges and other education programs, including $40 billion for Pell Grants and $10 billion to pay down the deficit. USSA, along with groups like Campus Progress and USPIRG, strongly backs the measure, which is expected to face a more contentious vote in the Senate.

After all, student lenders aren’t giving up without a fight. Over the past year and a half, Sallie Mae (for which participation in FFEL accounts for one-third of its income) has spent some $5.8 million to lobby against Obama’s plan, enlisting powerhouse lobbyist shops like the Podesta Group to sink Democratic support for it. To date, Democratic senators such as Arlen Specter (Sallie Mae is based in Pennsylvania), Jeff Bingaman, Tom Udall and Ben Nelson (Nebraska is home to student lender Nelnet, Nelson’s top campaign contributor) have all expressed opposition to the measure.

USSA’s other legislative priority, the DREAM Act, is unlikely to be heard this fall, but Hill staffers say that the measure may be broached in the spring as part of a broader immigration reform package.

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.

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