This article was originally published at WireTap magazine.
February 17, 2009
Carmen Berkley pays $900 every month in student loan debt. That’s more than many recent college grads pay in rent.
When she was in college, Berkley began to see the cost of tuition as the biggest obstacle to higher education for students from moderate- and low-income families. That’s why she got involved with the United States Students Association. USSA is the oldest national student-led organization dedicated to students’ interests. In the wake of a historic election, the organization has focused on increasing access to higher education by fighting tuition hikes and lobbying for more forgiving financial aid legislation.
Now, just a year after graduating from college, 23-year-old Berkley is the president of USSA. She says it’s a brand new day for student issues. “Now that so many people came out and voted, we can hold [our elected officials] accountable,” she says. If she’s right, that could mean significant strides in higher education accessibility–the kind of hope many students need now more than ever.
Under the dark cloud of economic recession, states have slashed budgets across the board, resulting in the sharpest tuition hikes in years. Many students’ college futures are becoming more and more uncertain.
This has only been compounded by the serious hurdles financial aid has faced over the past eight years, says Berkley. “Higher education hasn’t been on anyone’s top priority list,” she says. “Most of our programs have been on the chopping block or underfunded” since well before the current recession.
Under the Bush administration, Berkley felt that trying to build a relationship between student groups and the government was a lost cause. “There was absolutely no communication coming from the White House talking to us about what we care about.”
The Obama administration says things will be different and that it will make higher education a priority. One initiative the president has discussed is a tax credit giving students $4,000 in tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service. “We think that’s a great program,” says Berkley, “but there are a lot of other programs that have not been funded at all.”