As students in Wisconsin, we have the right to allocate our own segregated fees for student activities and services that serve the student interest such as student organizations, the Student Union, and University Health Services. Although recently we have seen a lack of transparency from what are known as “non-allocable” entities (UHS, Wisconsin Union, Rec. Sports, etc.), the state statute upholding this right—the famous 36.09(5)—remains in full force. Students must protect their right to allocate their own funds even though it is often co-opted and attacked by non-students, including administrators and legislators alike.
Recently, the Associated Students of Madison used segregated fees from the Internal Travel budget to send four UW-Madison students to Washington D.C. for the United States Student Association’s (USSA) Annual Legislative Conference. The foci of the conference were student loan debt and student voter access. Wisconsin students are extremely familiar with these issues. Graduates from the state rank above the national average with student loan debt at $27,000. Students throughout the UW system have worked diligently to ensure student access to the polls in the face of restrictive Voter ID laws (though that may have been taken care of).
To address the threat of doubling student loan interest rates this summer, never-ending tuition increases, and a student loan default rate of 20%, the USSA conference included workshops, trainings, strategy sessions, and direct actions. Conference programming covered the TRIO, SEOG & Pell grants, HR 4170 (the Student Loan Forgiveness Act), and the 2012 Get Out the Vote campaigns to name a few.
Back home in Wisconsin, the Associated Students of Madison recently participated in a Lobby Day organized by United Council at our state capitol on February 6th to lobby for increased financial aid funding for the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant, and adherence to shared governance through the Task Force on UW Restructuring decisions. We took to the state capital because we knew that if we didn’t, legislators would make decisions without us—decisions that affect our families, our wallets, and us.
Decision-making without proper information or experience—the kind that takes place daily in the state legislature—also occurs in the halls of Congress. While a number of influential non-student voices advocate for increased tuition in our state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, thousands more lobby for the same issues in our nation’s capitol in Washington D.C. And they are much more per$ua$ive.
I agree with those who say that we are not doing enough on the local level, and that a reinvestment of our time and energy in our own state and in our communities is long overdue. However, we must also be pragmatic about the forces that are against us. To clarify, when I say “us,” I mean students, in Wisconsin and across the country, and our families, who are paying too much for a college education that we hope and expect will get us a job in this economy. Whether or not our education prepares us for that job is another story.
Those who are successful at legitimizing issues do so through lobbying, media, grassroots organizing efforts, and money. For example, Sallie Mae spent over $3 million on lobbying in 2011. One way that groups with more energy than money can bring attention to the student loan bubble is through direct action and civil disobedience on the national stage. These actions build the pressure and attention necessary to publicize the issues. We must also continue lobbying efforts at home, creating K-12 community programs to ensure students have the educational resources they need to financially prepare for college, and holding Financial Resource Fairs on campus to educate our peers.
If we accept that the money students pay is money that can be used to serve the greater interests of the students, then it’s perfectly legitimate to use those funds to bring attention to the issues that most affect students, such as the debt load. Without the large resources of lobbying firms and big corporations, the most judicious use of student monies is to fund actions that garner the most publicity and have the highest impact at home and in Washington.
There are too many myths about students and our college experiences that are being presented to our decision-makers. I have heard all too many times that college students don’t work hard enough, and that all we do is party on Spring Break. We cannot let this be the prevailing rhetoric, nor can we allow these misinformed anecdotes to form the opinions of our decision-makers or our nation. Instead, let’s tell them that 300 of us from Florida, Michigan, Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Colorado, and Wisconsin gathered during Spring Break at our nation’s capital because student loan debt has exceeded 1 trillion dollars.
We’re fired up, and we won’t take it anymore.
Chair of Associated Students of Madison