Sep 21, 2010

Despite setback in Senate, youth continue to push for the DREAM Act

Today, Senate Republicans mounted a successful block of HR 5136, the National Defense Authorization Act, which included the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act as an amendment.  The DREAM Act would provide certain undocumented youth with the opportunity to earn their legal status through a college education or military service. 


“Currently, these students, many of whom grow up in the United States and only learn of their undocumented status when applying for college, have no place to turn after graduating from high school, regardless of their abilities or aspirations,” said United States Student Association (USSA) President Lindsay McCluskey.  “Thanks to obstructionist Senators, this archaic policy will remain law for now. However, young people nationwide will not stop organizing and advocating for immigrant justice until the DREAM Act becomes law.

Each year, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school but are financially barred from attending college.  As a result, a viscous cycle of poverty sweeps many into a lifetime of exploitative work and little pay. 


After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) proclaimed that the Senate will “vote on the DREAM Act, it’s only a matter of when.”  USSA, representing over four million college students nationwide, both documented and not, takes heart with Senator Reid’s comments and calls on the Senate to take further action on the DREAM Act.  Young people across the country will continue to fight for this piece of legislation and the inherent right of everyone to pursue a higher education.

Sep 20, 2010

Making the DREAM a Reality

By Chris Hicks, Student Labor Action Project Coordinator

Next week will be one of the most important for hundreds of thousands of young people. Growing up, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up: a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer, fire fighter, or so many other things. What we weren’t asked is what we will do if our initial dream doesn’t happen.

Would you pick to be a farmworker? A day laborer? A domestic worker? A hotel worker?

Every year 65,000 high school students have to ask themselves that as they are denied their right to education in the United States due to their documentation status. After being denied the right to an education, these students are forced to be some of the most exploited workers in our nation who will have to face ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids, stagnant wages, workplace abuses, and in worst case situations deal with modern day slavery.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, better known as the DREAM Act, could prevent all this from continuing to plague this country. The DREAM Act would allow students to obtain documentation through attending college or serving in the military for two years. This single piece of legislation would allow students across the country to fulfill their childhood dreams.

It is time for the student and labor movements to come together and stand for education as a right, and the right to jobs with justice. When students and workers come together, we change this country to meet the needs of the many as opposed to meeting the needs of a few.

Next week will define if a student can continue their education or have their DREAM denied. Next week, young people around the country will watch as 100 senators decide the fate of so many lives.

Today we can change that though. Today we must take action. Call your senator today and demand they stand with students and workers across the country and make these DREAMs come true.

Aug 16, 2010

We Need Vigilance in the Higher Education Community

President Obama has set a noble goal of having the United States lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020.  It is an aim that will empower individuals and strengthen the country as a whole, but it certainly won't be easy.  Our current graduation rates are far behind our international competitors and we will be hard pressed to meet our own college-educated workforce capacity by the end of the decade.  However, a united education community that invests in college access, degree quality, and workforce readiness will no doubt succeed in this effort.  It will take us all, public and private four-year institutions, community and technical colleges, trade schools, and for-profit career colleges to once again place the United States paramount in education.

This also means we have to hold all members of this education community accountable.  For-profit colleges play a key role in America's higher education system.  They serve many low-income, non-traditional, and traditionally underrepresented students in flexible ways that provide alternatives to traditional post-secondary education.  As a result, a substantial amount of federal student aid goes to these institutions, both through aid recipients choosing to attend for-profit colleges and through government subsidies.  In fact, 77 percent of for-profit college revenue comes from federal student aid; some institutions are funded 90 percent by the government.  Whether the money comes directly from the government, or indirectly through a students' enrollment, this infusion of federal student aid into the for-profit industry requires increased scrutiny.  After all, in such cash-strapped times, it is important to ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are being used wisely. 

Congress recently began looking closer at the for-profit industry as numbers surfaced that, while only 10 percent of higher education enrollees attend for-profits, they account for 44 percent of all student loan defaulters.  Additionally, more than one in five students who takes out student loans at for-profit colleges defaults within three years of leaving school.  With nearly a quarter of all federal financial aid going to these schools, a Congressional investigation was warranted.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, published its findings into 15 for-profit colleges, all of which have 89 percent of their revenues funded with federal student aid or are in a state that is among the top 10 receiving federal aid.   The investigation found that admissions officers at these schools had:

Encouraged students to falsify financial aid forms;
Encouraged students to take out loans;
Misled students about college costs, accreditation status, and job-placement rates;
Guaranteed applicants jobs after graduations;
Told students "no one will come after you if you don't pay" student loans;
Told applicants they could not speak with financial aid representatives about eligibility until they had fully enrolled and paid application fees.

This fraudulent, unethical behavior cannot be tolerated by any organization concerned with the future of America's higher education system.  

The U.S. Department of Education is currently crafting regulations to address these problems.  As they are written thus far, an institution will lose federal student aid if less than 35 percent of their former students are paying off the principal on their loans and 30 percent of their discretionary and 12 percent of their total income is going towards loan repayment.  If between 44 percent and 36 percent of their former students are paying down the principal on their loans, or their graduates are spending 20 percent of their discretionary and 8 percent of their total income on their loan repayment, then that institution will have to disclose said information to potential students.  Essentially, the regulations aim to ensure that institutions are being accurate and transparent about their capacity to secure gainful employment for their graduates, who are often those most in need of job security and debt relief.

Curiously, some groups representing the interests of communities whose members largely attend for-profit colleges have come out against these regulations.  They argue that because for-profit institutions serve underrepresented communities, cutting off aid to those that are underperforming and forcing transparency will trickle down to harm the students instead.  Yet, as was pointed out by the Career Colleges Association President and CEO Harris N. Miller in a recent USA Today editorial, students are the ones who determine where to use their federal student aid.  So why wouldn't a student simply chose to attend a career college that doesn't have poor job placement or high graduate default rates?  It isn't as if students will be forced to attend career colleges that are no longer eligible for federal aid programs.    Some of these groups have also claimed these regulations discriminate against low-income and minority students because the institutions serving them may have their federal funding revoked.  But to look the other way as these same programs target low-income and minority students, then leave them defaulting on loans with unaccredited degrees is equally, if not more, discriminatory and unjust.

In a recent Politico editorial by former Congressmen Ronnie Shows and Bob Barr, it was argued that the demographics served by for-profits will always have problems getting a job and will be likely to default on loans; this is a reality we must simply accept and is not the responsibility of career college to remedy.  Yet career colleges actively, sometimes unethically and over aggressively, target low-income and minority students with promises of job placement and financial security if they attend their institutions.  So it seems odd to argue that those institutions should just "accept the fact that students at for-profit colleges may have greater problems meeting financial obligations incurred during their schools years..." and are "likely to have a higher default rate" as Misters Shows and Barr have, when their entire marketing campaign is centered on promises of a better life.  If one of the fundamental roles of a higher education is to equip people with the tools to better their lives, why shouldn't we work towards eliminating programs that leave their graduates unemployed and saddled with debt?  Simply accepting that some graduates are bound to fail ignores one of the main reasons why the government invests in college education in the first place.

Finally, some argue that the regulations will sweep good programs in the with the "few bad apples" when cutting off federal financial aid.  Using this logic, do programs that result in over half of their graduates defaulting on loans really constitute a good program?  If 12 percent or more of a program's graduates' entire income is going towards student loan repayments, is that program considered successful?  I think the answer is clear.

Our nation is at a turning point.  We can either continue divesting from education, leaving America's graduates swamped in debt and jobless, or we can renew our investment in leading the world in college graduation rates.  No one section of higher education can accomplish this alone, all must work together.  But all must be equally vigilant in ensuring that the interest of students is paramount to industry agendas.  

Written by Lindsay McCluskey, USSA President and Victor Sanchez, USSA Vice President

Aug 10, 2010

Congress Passes Education Jobs Bill with Deep Cuts to Food Stamps

Today, the House of Representatives passed HR 1586 with a $26 billion state aid amendment that funds teacher jobs and state Medicaid spending.  The legislation, which passed the Senate by a vote of 61-38 on August 8, spends $10 billion on saving an estimated 140,000 K-12 education jobs.  Additionally, states will only receive said funding if they maintain higher education spending levels from fiscal year 2009.  Particularly cash-strapped states will be allowed to maintain spending levels from fiscal year 2006. 


With over 30 states set to impose cuts to their higher education budgets this fiscal year, stabilizing college spending is a great step forward in strengthening governmental investments in students.  However, with rising tuition, average student debt levels, and inflation, funding levels from fiscal year 2009, not adjusted to reflect today’s cost-of-living, is still inadequate.  Additionally, the funding for education and Medicare is paid for in part by $12 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the Food Stamps program.  40.8 million low-income people receive food stamps, according to the Agriculture Department.


“While we applaud Congress for taking the necessary action in saving thousands of education jobs and stabilizing state college spending, we are very concerned about the deep cuts to the Food Stamps program,” said USSA President Lindsay McCluskey.  “We have spent over $1 trillion in military operations since 9/11, I hope in the future Congress has the political will to use a fraction of that money to both feed and educate people.”

Today's vote demonstrates that the work of the student movement is necessary to advance long-term policy goals that strengthen all communities, not pit one against the other in a zero-sum fight for federal funding.  We will continue to advocate for higher education spending that is responsible and that reflects our vision of a just society.  

Students need action, not just vision

It read “Students Over Banks.” The headline on the Obama Administration’s website simply defined a priority the president has long chided as one of the utmost important to this country’s future. Regardless, for students, the situation at our colleges and universities across the country has long been untenable.

Earlier this year was arguably one of the few bright spots we have encountered despite our years of challenging the status quo, all in an attempt to prioritize education. With the passage of Student Aid Reform, we saw the biggest investment in Higher Education in this nations history—removing the Federal Family Educational Loan Program and diverting approximately $60 billion dollars into new funding for the Pell Grant, Minority Serving Institutions (MSI), and vital outreach programs to assist in greater access and affordability. Despite this, in a recent article published by the Huffington Post, student debt will out pace credit card debt, totaling a staggering $829.785 billion dollars, a testament to an ongoing national trend in America’s colleges and universities.

In his speech last night, President Obama acknowledged the lack of priority higher education has been given, explaining how

“In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults..”

Yes, the drop is staggering. But what should be shocking is the level of inaction demonstrated on behalf of the Federal Government. Yes, student aid reform was a big victory, but President Obama’s Texas speech was supposed to outline a bold visionary plan for how to move from there, how to achieve greater access and affordability post-student aid reform. Instead, the president showed us he agreed with our vision emphasizing equal accessibility, affordability, quality, and opportunity—all words and ideas that as students we know too well.

“And that’s why I'm absolutely committed to making sure that…nobody is denied a college education, nobody is denied a chance to pursue their dreams, nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can’t afford it.”

What we heard was a reification of a past victory that made many students feel as if that was it, he had saved us.  Yet, students across the country who have been hunger striking, risking deportation and getting arrested for the Federal DREAM Act were once again silenced and unacknowledged. President Obama is right, education needs to be a priority and America should produce 8 million more college students by 2020. But what students need now is real change, the kind we have been asking for, the kind found in our relentless calls for the passage of the Federal DREAM Act as a standalone bill.

As students across the country gear up for another election, we do so with history on our minds—guided by the principle that education is a right and not a privilege. Come November, with the United States Student Association, students will communicate our grievances, and we will be heard; because what America needs is more than just vision, but action.  

- By USSA Vice President Victor Sanchez

Aug 9, 2010

USSA Stands in Solidarity with AFL-CIO in Calling for DREAM Act

The United States Student Association (USSA), the nation’s oldest and largest student organization, applauds the AFL-CIO for its decision to call on Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act as a down payment on comprehensive immigration reform.

“USSA stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the labor movement as we urge Congress to open the college doors to thousands of the nation’s best and brightest undocumented students,” said USSA President Lindsay McCluskey.  “Access to higher education is a fundamental right and is being violated by our current education and immigration laws.  Passage of the DREAM Act will lead to and strengthen comprehensive immigration reform that will move our country closer to a truly just society.”

At USSA’s 63rd annual National Student Congress, delegates representing over 4 million students nationwide, voted to continue the near decade long campaign of the organization to help pass the DREAM Act.  The student delegates articulated the need to pass the DREAM Act now as a stand alone bill to make a “down payment” on  comprehensive immigration reform.

Jul 29, 2010

Students set new tone, leadership for the student movement

Nearly 200 college student organizers and leaders assembled at the University of California, Los Angeles last week for the United States Student Association’s (USSA) 63rd annual National Student Congress.  Members of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most inclusive student organization met to elect the 2010 – 2011 USSA President and Vice President, Board of Directors, and pass the national agenda for students.

Lindsay McCluskey, the previous USSA Vice President and University of Massachusetts, Amherst graduate, was elected President of the organization. “I’m honored and excited to be in this role at a time when momentum is building in the student movement,” said McCluskey.  “It’s a critical time for students to be engaged in the midterm election, fighting back against severe budget cuts and tuition hikes, and defending their right to a higher education.”  Victor Sanchez, a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz and outgoing President of the University of California Student Association, was elected Vice President.   "The real work starts now,” said Sanchez.  “I'm excited and ready to help build the student movement from coast to coast and make sure education is a right and not a privilege."

Top action agenda items to be taken up this year by USSA are passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, federal jobs legislation to mitigate historic youth unemployment, voter work for the 2010 mid-term elections, and student advocacy in the federal budget and appropriations process. 

The 2010 – 2011 Board of Directors met for the first time after the conference, setting the tone for the upcoming academic year and beyond.  “Sitting on the USSA board of directors with students across the United States is going to be a powerful experience” said National People of Color Student Coalition chair Tiffany Loftin, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  “I look forward to the nation's reaction to our movement, because we are driven by our testimonies and empowered by each other.”

The next national conference held by USSA will be the 42nd annual Grassroots Legislative Conference and National Student Lobby Day March 19-22, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Jul 28, 2010

Students Respond to Passage of Financial Reform

The financial collapse of 2008 had rippling effects across America, including on college students. Young people, who were already victim to decades of higher education divestment, saw higher education budgets slashed by state legislatures and tuition and fees soar.  With these higher costs and dwindling financial aid, student debt has risen to nearly $25,000 for the average borrower.   The federal government took steps to mitigate these financial burdens by passing historic student aid reform last spring, ushering in a new era of federal investment in college students.  Private lenders, however, still needed strengthened regulation.

 The recently signed financial reform legislation does just that.  The bill creates the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the first federal agency completely devoted to guarding consumers against dangerous lending practices.  The Bureau’s authority over private student loans will help reign in the ‘wild west’ of student lending.  However, the CFBP is limited to overseeing banks and credit unions making over $10 billion; Sallie Mae Bank, the nation’s largest student lender, makes $5 billion and will escape the agency’s supervision.  Students fought hard to end federal subsidies to private lenders because their lending practices lead to massive student debt; Congress shouldn’t allow that progress to retreat by diluting the CFPB’s authority.

USSA supports the independence of the CFPB as a neutral, objective watchdog, keeping solely the interests of American consumers, including college students, in mind.

Additionally, the final version of the bill does not include the House of Representative’s provision requiring students be made aware of any federal loans for which they are eligible before taking out private loans.  This policy is critical because, according to the U.S. Education Department, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates who borrowed private loans in the 2007-2008 academic year did so despite being eligible for lower-cost federal loans, and one quarter of these students did not take out any federal loans at all.  More awareness of federal loan eligibility is critical to the effectiveness of college affordability policy.

 USSA applauds Congress for taking the difficult but necessary steps to reform the nation’s financial framework.  Students will be working to ensure the CFBP vigilantly guards students against the predatory practices of private lenders.

Jul 7, 2010

Students Call for Passage of Financial Reform Legislation in the Senate with Stronger Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The United States Student Association (USSA), representing over four million college and university students nationwide, applauds Senator Chris Dodd, Representative Barney Frank, and all those who having worked diligently on the historic Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Members of Congress have recognized the importance of including regulation over private loans, the ‘wild west’ of student lending, in their efforts to stabilize the nation’s financial framework.

Unprecedented divestment from higher education has forced a third of students to borrow loans to pay for college, leading to nearly $25,000 of debt for the average graduate borrower.  Private lenders have taken advantage of this situation by imposing rigid repayment plans and excessive and arbitrary interest rate hikes on students.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) authority over all private student loans is a giant step in the right direction.  USSA further commends the private student loan ombudsman, which will drastically improve the student loan system through assistants to borrowers and constructive policy analysis.

In addition to these provisions, USSA calls for CFBP regulatory power over banks making under $10 billion.  Without this authority, Sallie Mae Bank, the largest private loan lender in the nation, will escape from under the watchful eye of the CFPB.  During the recent student aid reform debates, lending practices by Sallie Mae and banks like it were brought to light that demand more rigorous federal regulation.  It would be counterintuitive to end the Federal Family Education Loan program, due in large part to the lending practices of Sallie Mae, only to then remove Sallie Mae bank from CFPB oversight.

Additionally, USSA calls for a reinstatement of the House of Representative’s provision requiring students be made aware of any federal loans for which they are eligible before taking out private loans.  Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates who borrowed private loans in the 2007-08 academic year did so despite being eligible for lower-cost federal loans, and one quarter of these students did not take out any federal loans at all.  More awareness of federal loan eligibility is essential for effective college affordability legislation.

Not since President Roosevelt’s New Deal has Congress undertook such an ambitious and important reform of our nation’s financial system.  Instrumental in that reform is the protection of consumers against unscrupulous lenders, something that each student has a vested interest in.  During the Independence Day recess, students are taking action in-district on this legislation, letting their senators know why financial reform is critical to college affordability.  USSA urges the Senate to swiftly pass the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act with a strengthened CFPB.

Jul 2, 2010

Students React to President Obama’s Immigration Reform Speech with a Call for Passage of the DREAM Act

"We can be a nation of laws and immigrations," declared President Obama at yesterday’s immigration reform speech.  He spoke of America attracting the best and the brightest from across the globe and the moral imperative to fix our broken immigration system.  While the numerous issues hindering immigration reform were eloquently outlined, the president’s speech lacked an action plan for enacting reform legislation.  The conspicuous absence of a legislative strategy was disappointing, and the reality is setting in that comprehensive immigration reform will most likely not happen this summer.

Despite the political posturing that has stalled the immigration debate, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has attracted massive public and legislative support.  Passing the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill not only makes sense, it’s what the nation is demanding.

Undocumented youth and their allies are being arrested, hospitalized, and harassed as they fight for the DREAM Act.  Undeterred by threats or legislative lethargy, these activists continue to demonstrate that while Congress may not have an appetite for larger immigration reform, America is hungry for the DREAM Act.  Grassroots organizing for the DREAM Act on campuses and in communities across the country has made clear that creating a pathway to citizenship through education for undocumented youth is something most of us can agree on.

This support is also reflected in Congress.  The DREAM Act has 124 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 40 in the Senate, unbelievably high numbers considering the partisanism of Capital Hill.  The fact that almost a majority of Senators not only support the bill, but have put their name to it demonstrates the immense common sense popularity of the DREAM Act.

Representing over four million college students, the United States Student Association calls on Congress to pass the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill this summer.  It is a common sense solution to immigration that has both legislative a public support.  It’s time for a reality check.  There is no reason to continue holding out for future comprehensive immigration reform that may or may not happen while DREAM Act qualified undocumented students are being deported right now.  Congress must put politics aside and do what is right—pass the DREAM Act now!