In today’s political climate, advocacy organizations engage in idealistic battles for social justice, but often settle for minor victories that, although tangible and productive, fall far short of their expounded ideals. The United States Student Association (USSA), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most inclusive student organization, recently had such an ‘opportunity’. But, with much more than a ‘minor’ victory at hand – substantial funding for a significant percentage of their membership via Pell Grants – they still resisted taking a major step away from their principles.
The Federal Pell Grant Program provides funds to low-income undergraduate and certain post baccalaureate students. The grants may be used at any one one of about 5,400 participating post-secondary institutions. Grants are awarded on the basis of a student’s expected family contribution; the cost of attending a particular institution (as determined by that institution); the student’s enrollment status (full-time or part-time); and whether or not they attend for a full academic year or less.
It is the federal government’s cornerstone financial aid program: it has enabled millions of low-income students to attend college. However, the program currently faces a $5.7 billion shortfall.
Because the Pell grant is a discretionary spending item, Congress is under no obligation to provide it with funding. Year after year, appropriators arbitrarily set Pell Grant funding levels too low, consequently, the shortfall. Congress’ solution was to appropriate the required dollars within the FY2010 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, a bill primarily to fund on-going war operations in Afghanistan. With these two components, educational funding and military support. it neatly brought Members together who might not have wanted to be together. And, thus, there was a line in the sand drawn.
The USSA Board of Directors, which is comprised of college students from around the country, voted not to support the bill. The Board members recognized that the $227 billion in federal funding for operations in Afghanistan is a central reason why there has been little money for higher education programs since 9/11. In fact, while national defense makes up over 20 percent of the federal budget, higher education comprises less than one percent. To ignore this egregious spending disparity, and blindly accept war appropriations as a legislative vehicle to fund the Pell Grant Program neither addresses the root cause of why the Program is suffering from a massive shortfall nor does it provide a path which the USSA is in favor of establishing.
Simply out, the nation’s most needy students deserve better than arbitrary funding levels that are reliant upon defense spending breadcrumbs in the federal budget. USSA does support Pell Grant funding, but in a responsible way that ensures stability and predictability for students and families.
USSA could have supported the war supplemental bill, focusing on its immediate benefits to college students, and left, undisturbed, the issue of military spending. USSA Board Members could have still held their heads high, knowing that they helped over eight million Pell Grant recipients secure larger sums of financial aid next year, furthering the organization’s mission of increasing college affordability. But what about next year? What if the United States decides to invade another country? How long must higher education take a back seat to foreign adventurism? Despite the potential hit endured by the Pell Grant Program, the USSA Board of Directors asked these essential questions and took a stand against continued legislative divestment from higher education.
The courageous leadership of USSA has, thereby, set a new tone for the American Student Movement. This week, July 15-20, hundreds of student delegates from around the country – representing 400 campuses and more than 4 million students – are convening at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA for USSA’s 63rd annual National Student Congress. With a renewed commitment to the high ideals of what an educated society can accomplish in the pursuit of social justice, with a movement of unparalleled grassroots organizing capacity and access to national decision-makers.
Following a year of vigorous student protests over fee hikes and college budget cuts, both in California and nationwide, it is a critical time for these student leaders to come together and shape the new discourse and action agenda for the student movement. With practical, youthful idealism abounding in the hallways of UCLA, the 63rd National Student Congress will bring the country one step closer to making education a fundamental, human right for all.
Major developments will be posted to www.losangelesfreepress.com
The United States Student Association (USSA), is the country’s oldest, largest, and most inclusive student organization with more than 4 million students on more than 400 campuses. It’s 63rd annual National Student Congress will be held July 15 – 20, 2010 at the University of California, Los Angeles to set the organization’s federal legislative agenda and elect the 2010-2011 officers and board of directors. Past USSA Congresses have sparked groundbreaking campaigns on civil rights and social justice, including racial integration and gender inclusion. –
Communications Director | U.S. Student Association
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