Student loan debt is a major issue in our country. Considering the current economic climate, it can be quite intimidating for a young college graduate to think about their thousands of dollars in debt and weigh the marginalized chances of getting a job to help finance that debt. In addition, with more people applying and enrolling into graduate programs, there are fewer financial resources and options at the graduate level. The Pell Grant runs out once one has completed their undergraduate degree, so student loans take up the bulk of very costly graduate level tuition fees.
I, myself, am a young college graduate. Truthfully speaking, I have silently brooded over my own educational debt for the past few months and decided there must be some kind of change. I did some research and found out about some of the great work being done by a non-profit based out of DC. It is called Campus Progress and they are a part of a non-partisan research and educational institute called the Center for American Progress.
Both of these organizations have taken strong, open-minded stances on pertinent issues in regards to public policy. In addition, they are committed to creating a powerful and progressive movement that links people across the divides of background, region, and issue interests, working to keep them connected over time.
I had the opportunity to speak to Pedro de la Torre, senior advocacy associate for Campus Progress, specifically about the issues surrounding student loan and educational debt.
Campus Progress launched a campaign called Students over Banks. I’d like to focus on this campaign and the victories behind it. Can you enlighten readers on what the Students over Banks campaign was about?
Campus Progress launched the Students Over Banks campaign to support historic efforts to cut wasteful subsidies to student loan companies, and invest the $68 billion that this would save into Pell grants and other programs that benefit students. It was a difficult year-long effort against a multi-million dollar lobbying and PR campaign by student loan companies, but Congress passed these reforms last month.
How long had your organization considered doing a campaign like Students over Banks?
Campus Progress has been engaged in efforts to both make college more affordable and reform the student loan system for some time. For example, Campus Progress ran a campaign called “Debt Hits Hard” around the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. When President Obama indicated in his budget for 2010 that ending lender subsidies and increasing student aid would be a top priority, we knew that we needed to act. No major reform is easy, especially when there are so many special interests prepared to fight it tooth and nail, so we wanted to make sure that the voice of students was heard.
Personally as a college grad with thousands of dollars in student loans, I’m very grateful that your non-profit put so much effort into student loan reform.
However, considering all the issues within our country, it seemed for a long time that student loan debt and education were being put on the congressional back burner. Was it hard to galvanize efforts for this campaign?
Unfortunately, college affordability did not seem like a priority for Congress until it passed the College Cost Reduction and Access act in 2007. That bill cut (but did not eliminate) lender subsidies, and used the savings to increase the Pell grant program, create the income based repayment and public service loan forgiveness programs, cut interest rates on some student loans, and more.
Since that time Congress has been doing a much better job at investing in student aid. They, for example, also increased the Pell grant in 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus bill”). We still have a long way to go before college is truly affordable for low and middle income students and even further before we have a post-secondary education system that works for everyone. Congress has been taking big strides, but their work is not finished. We are looking forward to working with Congress and other to continue taking steps in the right direction.
It is also important that both state governments and schools make access, equity, and affordability real priorities. We are concerned, for example, that some schools use their own financial aid budget to recruit students that will improve their rankings or increase revenue while leaving some qualified and accepted applicants with unmet needs.
Campus Progress worked with a few different organizations (US Student Association, US PIRG, the Campaign for College Affordability, etc.) on this issue. Was it tough avoiding inter-fraternal politics and establishing a core mission statement amongst all the groups?
We did not establish a “mission statement,” but Campus Progress, USSA, US PIRG, and the Campaign for College Affordability had a very clear goal in mind: increase investments in student aid and other programs that will help students by reforming the student loan system. There are always, of course, some differences in opinion or emphasis in a coalition, but I have always believed that with good communication, these differences can be a source of strength. Overall, we were extraordinarily united in our goals and in our efforts.
What were some other difficulties you faced when presenting this issue to key policymakers?
The biggest difficulty that we faced was the steady stream of misinformation and rhetoric being created by student loan companies and their allies. For example, one senator that is particularly close to the industry even made wild claims that, to get their loans, students would have to “line up at offices designated by the U.S. Education Department,” and that “getting your student loan will become about as enjoyable as going to the Department of Motor Vehicles.” This is misleading in two ways.
First of all, getting a student loan is never enjoyable (laughs). Even if you could obtain student loans at Coachella or Mardi Gras, it would still be a necessary evil!
More importantly, the only difference that students applying for federal loans should see is one less step in the process. The “offices designated by the U.S. Education Department” are college financial aid offices, run by school, and the same place students have always gone to receive federal student loans. On top of this whopper is the fact that students rarely, at least in my experience, have to “line up” anywhere, as most of the process is done online or through the mail.
Does Campus Progress have any other future campaigns or upcoming events?
We are always planning events with students throughout the country, but we are currently gearing up for our biggest event of the year: the 2010 Campus Progress National Conference. The conference is last two days. The first will feature big speakers and discussion with at least 1,000 students from across the country. Some few of the speakers at previous conference have included Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, John Lewis, Keith Ellison, Seymour Hersh, Asra Nomani; Majora Carter, Van Jones, Ryan Gosling, and John Oliver. It is free, and some travel scholarships are available. You can learn more and apply here.
We are also working closely with the Trail of DREAMs (trail2010.org) to promote the DREAM Act and other immigration reform efforts. The DREAM Act would create a path to citizenship for those who were brought to the US as children and who either graduate from college or serve in the military for two years. Four brave students have been walking from Miami to DC since New Year’s day to build support for a just immigration system. They will be arriving in DC at the end of this month for a lobby day, rally, and more.
For more about Campus Progress, click here