UC Berkeley students help form national caucus to address public higher education issues

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National legislators gathered with student representatives from UC Berkeley and other California public universities in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to inaugurate the California Public Higher Education Caucus.

The caucus is a bipartisan committee composed of 32 members of Congress whose main goal is to increase the quality of public higher education in California while making it more accessible and affordable. With a focus on the UC and California State University campuses, the caucus aims to ensure that factors such as rising tuition costs do not deter students from pursuing a degree.

“I applaud our students for coming together and working with the congressional offices and the California State University to encourage the creation of this caucus with a focus on addressing higher education accessibility and affordability issues in California and across the country,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a Thursday press release.

The caucus will meet regularly, as will committees from the systemwide student governments — including the University of California Student Association — to come up with recommendations for the caucus.

Student groups that deal with national issues now have a direct channel through which to communicate their concerns, said ASUC External Affairs Vice President Safeena Mecklai.

“It’s important because students have a lot of issues that would be dealt with better if they had the opportunity to voice their concerns to national legislators,” Mecklai said. “Students at the UC don’t see themselves as deserving of a voice at the national level.”

The idea for the caucus came from the EAVP office two years ago, spearheaded largely by Nicholas Kitchel, then-chief deputy of national affairs for the ASUC, and David Kaufman, former political director for the UC student regent. The project gained the support of Mecklai and caucus co-chair, Democratic Congressman Ami Bera, in the summer of 2013. Because the students intended to make the caucus bipartisan, they could not move forward until Republican Congressman Jeff Denham stepped up as co-chair in November.

Once the congressmen were on board, the group reached out to the CSU system to widen the scope of the project. The caucus is working to bring in the support of California Community Colleges, who have not yet officially signed on.

Kaufman says that when students began talking about establishing the caucus, many members of the community were surprised to find out it did not already exist. He and Kitchel saw this as an opportunity to create something unprecedented and make a “crucial” investment in public higher education.

“Regardless of who you are, where you’re from and how much money you make, if you work hard, you should be able to attend college,” Kitchel said. “That’s sort of the foundational idea behind the caucus.”

Contact Michelle Pitcher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @michellepitcher.