By Tom Allison
People often ask how our Young Invincibles campaign to boost state investment in higher education – coined the Student Impact Project -- works. We empower students to talk with state lawmakers about policy solutions to complex problems in higher education. Recently in Virginia, our work led to a successful symposium that brought students, lawmakers and college administrators together to exchange ideas about college affordability and accessibility that could impact the state's 2015 legislative agenda.
We began our work in January, building relationships with students and state legislators. Our work started with a trip to the General Assembly in Richmond with dozens of students, in which we encouraged students to approach their representatives to discuss the rising cost of higher education in Virginia. Some of the same legislators the students met with in January came to the symposium in July, a credit to the student outreach we guided.
Throughout the day, experts and students exchanged concerns about the state of financial aid available in the state. Lumina Strategy Labs sponsored the event, and Young Invincibles teamed up with Ed Trust and Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Fairfax) to organize it. In addition to bringing students, legislators, financial aid administrators together, we brought national experts in to contribute to discussions of how to make Virginia schools more accessible and affordable.
Students learned about how the state budget works -- related to providing financial aid -- and about challenges and opportunities to make college less costly to enter and to complete in Virginia. They shared stories of how decisions made by financial aid administrators have impacted them, and their ability to access and complete college -- and administrators responded.
For Rodrigo Velasquez, a student leader at George Mason University, the discussions opened his eyes to greater legislative debates that impact Virginia’s budget:
“Overall, the way the financial aid administrators talked about ability to access and complete college, the discourse revolved heavily around politics and distribution of money within the state. It's interesting how so many things affect higher education indirectly because of how much money goes to things outside of higher education such as financing prisons and social programs.”
The Experts Weigh In: Early Awareness, Guaranteed Aid & Academic Support Programs Help Students
During the symposium, state experts spoke to budgetary challenges and their attention to early awareness and financial aid programs. Students had the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns about state budget levels.
Experts from other states discussed programs and models that they’ve seen work well across the country that Virginia might adopt. Jason Bearce, Associate Commissioner of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, for example, talked about his home state’s 21st Century Scholars Program, a scholarship guaranteeing eligible students four years of free tuition. Students shouldn’t be “anonymous,” he explained, as educators track their progress and work to provide free tutoring and support services.
Ann Trollinger, administrator of The Carolina Covenant, another free tuition program, demonstrated promising progress in graduation rates for their recipients, but also institution-wide:
From the chart above, you can see how Carolina Covenant’s combination of financial and academic support more than doubled the graduation rate among African-American men. Considering education’s unique ability to close race gaps in employment, as well as the overall cost of youth unemployment, policymakers should take note of North Carolina’s successes.
The University of Virginia has a program similar to the Carolina Covenant, AccessUVa, originally meant to provide free tuition to students whose household income was 200% or below the poverty level. UVa student and activist Ashley Blackwell was particularly concerned with cuts made to AccessUVa. “UVa still ranks in the bottom 5% of low-income student access and recent cuts to the program will decrease the accessibility of the college,” Blackwell told us.
How Do We Tackle the Problem? Participants Vote on Financial Aid Program Goals
We collected feedback from the symposium participants that will inform the 2015 legislative session – feedback on long-term and short-term goals Virginia should adopt to make college more affordable, accessible and easier to complete.
During the symposium, we broke out into six small groups to discuss goals with everyone in the room. Following small group conversations, the entire symposium voted on whether they thought the goals would be feasible and effective by using green, yellow or red stickers. Here are sample results:
Participants agreed that Virginia’s college counselors should be better trained on how to inform students of their options for paying for college.
George Mason University student and Student Senator John Danieles told us, “Academic advising and tutoring is crucial for any student especially one who is of a lower socioeconomic status and may not be able to afford tutoring for a college placement test like the SAT that others can and therefore have a better chance to do well on and get into college.”
He added, “I know I wouldn’t be in college if it wasn’t for people who looked out for me and gave me advice and tutoring when I needed it.”
But as the graph shows by the number of red stickers, there was a lot of concern about making financial aid a mandatory state budget item, as opposed to the Legislature setting the funding levels each budget cycle.
In talking about goals to improve completion, participants mostly agreed on the need to increase funding for tutoring and academic services, as well as increase overall funding per student. The Commonwealth cut their higher ed funding by 34% in the last five years. Folks were a bit more skeptical of improving completion by reducing the number of years or credits you need to obtain a degree.
The event was also a great opportunity for student leaders to build relationships with other student leaders and networks. Representatives from VA 21, Organizing Virginia, U/Fused and the Virginia Student Power Union got to hear about each other’s plans for the fall and the next legislative session.
If you or your student group would like help training your members – in Virginia or any other state -- organizing events or legislative visits to Richmond, let us know! In the coming months, we’ll be conducting budget and advocacy trainings on Virginia campuses, reviewing how the budget is crafted, important deadlines to monitor, key players in the process and much more. So stay tuned!
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