JAKE STILWELL, USSA
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.