On February 17, 2010, United States Student Association President Gregory Cendana delivered the organization’s annual State of the Student Union address:
“Students, higher education supporters, elected officials, members of the press, and coalition partners:
My name is Gregory Cendana and I am the President of the United States Student Association, the country's oldest and largest student-run, student-led organization. Representing over 4.5 million students at over 400 campuses nationwide, it is my honor to report to you that the State of the Student Union is on the brink of fundamental change.
In the past year, we have seen devastating divestment from higher education. State governments seem to view higher education spending as little more than budget items with distant payoffs and students as perpetual revenue streams for deficit reduction. Essentially, they are balancing their budgets on the backs of students. Federal spending has not kept up with these cuts. The Pell grant, the cornerstone of need-based aid, once covered 72 percent of the cost of college; today, that number has plummeted to 32 percent. Student borrowers are graduating an average of over 23 thousand dollars in debt into one of the worst job markets on record for young people. Due to continued legislative inaction from both state and federal governments, over 65 thousand undocumented students are denied access to college because of their citizenship. All of these factors are leading to ours being the first generation in decades to be worse off than our parents.
Students are not taking this lying down. Despite racking up mountains of debt while facing enormous tuition hikes and state budget cuts, college students have continued organizing to make education a right. This year, hundreds of thousands of students have mobilized to demand college access and affordability through weeks of action, lobby visits, campus rallies, and other tactics. These actions have been as visible as the massive protests across the University of California system last fall in response to the Board of Regents’ vote to increase fees by 32 percent, and just this past week, the Washington Student Association mobilized thousands of students on the steps of the state capital for the Rally for Our Future to ensure 15,000 students wont lose their state based grants. These actions have been as humble as door-knocking, phone banking and letter-writing campaigns on campuses across the country. From coast-to-coast, students and community members have unified to defend public education by organizing local “March 4 education” rallies on, you guessed it, March 4th.
I continue to be inspired by young people who can barely afford to stay in school giving their precious time and effort to fighting for college affordability. Their devotion to the student movement convinces me that we can and will make education a right.
We have had some big victories because of these actions. As President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, the Senate is about to consider student aid reform legislation, already passed in the House, that will fundamentally alter the student loan system. Under this bill, instead of subsidizing private lenders, the federal government will allocate over 80 billion dollars to need-based aid, access and retention programs, and investments in community colleges and Minority Serving Institutions. While this bill makes economic and common sense, it faces extreme opposition from big banks that don't want to see their profits lost to college affordability. Together, we must lobby the Senate to stand with America’s youth by passing student aid reform. It will take us one step closer to ensuring that financial burdens never weigh
down a students' ability to achieve a college education and brighter future.
USSA was pleased to see that, despite federal funding freezes for many important domestic programs, education spending has actually increased by 7.5 percent in the president's proposed budget. This is indicative of a changing political climate that recognizes the long-term economic impact of higher education. Students must pressure their elected officials to maintain these funding increases in Congress' FY11 budget.
As I previously mentioned, the challenges faced by undocumented students are made more severe by their denial of college access. We grow up with these students; they are our grade school classmates, our neighbors, and our friends. Yet, without the ability to go to college, they are left behind. The DREAM Act is a bill that will throw open the college doors for these students, allowing them to better their lives and contribute to their communities through education. USSA has supported this legislation since its inception in 2001 and cant stop and wont stop until it is passed.
We are on the brink of fundamental change. With a president in office who wants to lead the world in post-secondary graduation rates and a new level of student power unmatched in its organizing capacity or political influence, never before has the goal to make education a right been so within our grasp. But the moment is brief and our action is required. Start a DREAM Act coalition, take over your student government, lobby for student aid reform, write your newspaper, join a “March 4th Education” event in your area, and come to USSA’s Legislative Conference.
Together, we must unite to define this decade of student power and make education a right!