Illustration by Maggie McManus.
Illustration by Maggie McManus.

The United States Student Association (USSA) is urging collegiates nationwide to contact their local senators and fight for student aid reform legislation in a week they have entitled “Raising Pell.”

The members of the USSA have strategically decided to go into action the week before the ballot goes out to raise awareness to politicians about the need for student aid reform. As the state of California has been reevaluating their funding for higher education and the way students are granted financial aid, this week of action has become particularly important to students on UC campuses.

“Pell” refers to the recent increases in Pell Grants from $4,731 to $5,350 this year under the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). The act is intended to help college students afford the cost of their post-secondary educations.

Some of the improvements listed in the SAFRA bill include increasing Pell Grants annually from $5,550 in the year 2010 to $6,900 in 2019, simplifying the FAFSA form and investing $2.55 billion in historically black and minority colleges.

Currently, 4,785 UC Santa Cruz students receive aid from the Pell Grant — about 27 percent of the total students enrolled. Full-time students can receive anywhere from $976 to $5,350 annually through the grant.

Monique Teal, the national field director for USSA in Washington D.C., is impressed with the power she has witnessed coming from students, as many are contacting their local politicians.

“The students did a really amazing job of encouraging the House of Representatives to pass the SAFRA bill in the past,” Teal said. “I believe the September 17 bill was really historical in the way that it was written and the type of investment that it gave students to help their secondary education.”

For the bill to be finalized, students have to come together to work on getting the bill through the Senate. They have developed key points that will be reflected in the legislation that is set to appear on the ballot on Oct. 15.

“Because of the way their system works we need the Senate to pass the bill as well and they haven’t done that yet,” Teal said. “As of now the bill hasn’t even been written, so our tactic is to go out and use the same method [of contacting local politicians] to encourage the Senate and really show that they have students that are affected by this issue and really want to see it passed.”

During the week of action in Massachusetts, Sen. John Kerry told the students calling in that he was undecided about whether or not he was going to support a student version of SAFRA. After a few hours, he then asked the members of USSA to stop calling because he made up his mind that he supported the bill.

In Santa Cruz, Tommy Lee, the local member of the USSA board of directors, has been doing his part to help during “Raising Pell” week by calling and faxing the district and federal offices. Lee says he understands the hardships that come with trying to get financial aid.

“The money from the federal government allows students to focus on their academics and not have to worry about the trouble of paying off their student loans and that’s something that I want to strongly support,” Lee said.

This bill has become especially important in California because more students are trying to find financial aid in a state that is experiencing a severe cut to its education budget.

“Over the phone I have tried contacting the financial aid office and it took 10 days for them to call me back,” Lee said. “They have a lack of services because they have an overwhelming amount of people trying to call the office, and this is not just in Santa Cruz, this is happening more and more in campuses in California.”

Ann Draper, the director of the financial aid office at UCSC, has been seeing more applicants for financial aid this year because of the state of California’s economy.

“We are seeing more people with need for financial aid because of the economy but that doesn’t mean financial aid is harder to get,” Draper said. “Because the fees went up for UCs and the Pell Grant went up, we are getting more grant money to help support students that doesn’t have to be repaid.”

Even in economic hardships, the students involved in “Raising Pell” have proven that financial aid is still possible.

Teal is proud of the way the students are fighting for their right to financial aid and for affordable education all across the country.

“It’s inspiring to see the work students are able to do and to be connected to a really long tradition of students organizing and students demanding better from politicians and really driving the social conscious of the country,” Teal said. “I really enjoy being part of that movement and inspiring the next generation of folks who will be doing this as well.”