ASUC Washington trip highlights progress, obstacles to equitable higher education policy

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Lily Callender/Staff

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Students who volunteer their time and energy to attend the ASUC’s semesterly Washington, D.C. trip exit the baggage claim at Reagan National Airport and enter the city excited, passionate and apprehensive about what the next days’ meetings will hold. These students expose some of their most painful stories to congressional staffers who put on compassionate faces while looking into the students’ eyes. It is understood, however, that some will bow to the status quo as soon as they leave the room. It’s taxing work — an uphill journey that can feel insurmountable but, after walking it for more than two years, I see reason to hope. Though the obstacles remain as present as ever, a slow stream of progress has begun pushing higher education policy in a more equitable, compassionate direction.

When I first joined the Washington delegation in fall 2017, the conversations we had on affordability and access were different. Instead of arguing for increased funding and less financially burdensome options for students, we worked to prevent the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform Act’s massive reductions in student support. We were often met with surprised faces in uplifting the few bills trying to ease basic needs security when staffers heard that 48% of our students faced food insecurity and 10% have experienced homelessness during their undergraduate career.

During this semester’s trip, however, many congressional staffers were well aware of the urgency of basic needs, the problems of financial support and the legislation we pushed. Delegates even had an opportunity to sit down with Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, to share their experiences dealing with food and housing access. This time, they weren’t pushing an office to do the right thing but instead emphasized why the congresswoman’s forthcoming basic needs bill is an important step for student success and survival. Demands we have been making for years, such as increasing Pell Grant funding, indexing it to inflation, expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and creating a federal-state college funding partnership have been included in the House education committee’s College Affordability Act. Even offices who have been reluctant to support greater funding have begun to see why rising costs and ineffective financial aid put students in a losing battle.

We were also encouraged by how congressional offices have begun addressing the epidemic of campus sexual misconduct cases. Sexual misconduct is difficult to ignore when 23% of female-identifying students, 5% of male-identifying students and 24% of transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students report forced sexual contact during their time in college. Not only did many staffers appear engaged and attentive when discussing this issue, but a number of offices also have introduced substantial proposals to address campus sexual misconduct. For one, the College Affordability Act specifically addresses the survivor-opposed rules put forward by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, against which the UC Berkeley ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President has strenuously fought. Additionally, proposed legislation, such as California’s 14th congressional district Rep. Jackie Speier’s “Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency on Campus Sexual Violence Act,” would implement much stronger accountability measures for institutions and would mandate clarity when universities distribute their Title IX policies. As awareness of the issue increases, we are optimistic that proposals like these will gain traction.

Though many elements of the Washington trip were hopeful, it was hard to escape the obstacles toward enacting these encouraging solutions. On both Title IX and higher education affordability, more cynical congressional offices repeatedly told us that any bill is likely dead-on-arrival in the Senate. This concern is warranted given that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stuck by his promise to serve as a legislative “grim reaper.” Besides this obstruction, Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, have failed to reconcile their differences to produce a bipartisan Higher Education Act Reauthorization. The critical division was due to Sen. Alexander’s reluctance to support measures addressing growing costs and sexual misconduct on campuses.

The White House is a far greater hurdle than cynical House members or the inactive Senate. Through his administration’s messaging campaign, the president has stymied much of our immigration advocacy as Republican opposition to inclusive reform becomes entrenched. It is clear that the president is unlikely to sign any of the legislation the ASUC supports. Despite pushing hard on the issues of undocumented student access and securing status for the 11 million undocumented folks living in the United States, reticent and opposed offices seem no more likely to voice support for legislative fixes. Even measures aimed at helping Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, a group many members of Congress claim to support, are either met with passive inaction or genuine resistance. Immigration policy and many of our bill priorities will continue to be stalled until serious changes come to the federal government.

It can be hard to come back to the same offices, to share hardships and to receive unmotivated or resistant looks in return. However, the constant push by students for better, more equitable policies seems to be making a dent. As long as we continue to build on the work done in the past and keep uplifting student voices, I have hope for the future.

Mark Green is the federal government relations director for the ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President and he is a campus senior majoring in political science and linguistics.