We believe that higher education should be free and accessible for all. While we are trying to solve the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis at the federal level, it is critical that action be taken at the local level to protect students. That’s why youth-led organizations in the Alliance for Youth Action Network are fighting to protect student borrowers and ensure higher education at every level is accessible and affordable for all.
Last year, our organizers were making moves in reforming education systems in their communities, so we checked in with them again to see how they’re making equitable and accessible education a reality for all. Here’s how they’re doing it:
New Era Colorado
In Spring of 2021, New Era Colorado passed both of their priority bills, the Student Loan Equity Act and Financial Literacy Standards! The New Era team engaged 85 different volunteers to mobilize their peers around student debt last year, which resulted in over 1800 young people taking action. In addition, they developed two educational videos on student debt which led to multiple earned media hits including an interview with Elite Daily and an Op-Ed in the Colorado Sun.
New Era has also helped students through the The New Era Colorado Foundation Student Assistance Fund. This program assists students who owe debts to an institution of higher education through individual grants. So far, they’ve assisted 86 applicants, 79 of those applicants being people of color.
This year, New Era’s priority in legislation is around a harmful student debt practice that inhibits the economic freedom of many young people, particularly young people of color: transcript withholding. HB 22-1049, which would prohibit transcript withholding, just passed the House, and is heading to the governor’s desk very soon where New Era is confident it will be signed into law!
New Era Colorado worked to pass the Student Loan Equity Act—a trailblazing bill that would create protections for private student loan borrowers in Colorado. Private student loans don’t receive many of the basic protections afforded to borrowers of other types of loans. As a result, borrowers are vulnerable to shady loan industry practices, like robo signing and auto-defaulting. The Student Loan Equity Act will protect these borrowers, create greater transparency, and offer better recourse if lenders break the law.
Ohio Student Association
For the last eight years, Ohio Student Association (OSA) has been dedicated to changing the policy landscape for higher education. This year, OSA is fighting to defeat HB 322 and 327, Ohio’s own anti-critical race theory bills, by holding teach-ins, collecting testimonies, and hosting a direct action opposing the bills. They’re also working to get debt navigation programs passed in state legislatures to end Transcript Traps.
In regards to Black student equity, OSA is making big moves this year! Their Black Student Equity Report will survey Black students’ experiences at colleges and universities statewide. This report will be the first of its kind. It will assess affordability and equity issues that uniquely affect Ohio’s Black student population.
The Ohio Student Debt Association has worked hard to center student voices in these fights and uplift student debt stories. They are working in coalition with other organizations across the state to tackle student debt. Read their report with Policy Matters Ohio on higher education in Ohio. The OSA team met with Senator Sherrod Brown and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur to share student debt stories.
Virginia Student Power Network
Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) is continuing to protect the progress they’ve made on recent higher education wins, including passing legislation to provide in-state tuition and state financial aid for undocumented students in Virginia! Right now, VSPN is supporting legislation that would increase access and reduce barriers to higher education for students.
On campuses, VSPN organizers at University of Virginia won a tuition freeze at their university, meaning tuition rates on this campus are guaranteed to stay stagnant until the 2024-2025 academic year. Their staff has also done research to increase transparency on campuses around federal stimulus funding for Virginia universities. Throughout the VSPN network, students are demanding tuition freezes, hybrid classes, mask mandates, availability of testing on campus, and funding for mental health resources.
VSPN has a track record of organizing and winning issue-based campaigns for college affordability across the state. In 2014, they won a campaign to create a $1 million emergency fund at George Mason University for low-income, first-generation, undocumented, and homeless students. For four years in a row, they have mobilized students for annual advocacy days at the General Assembly calling for an end to student debt and free public college.
During the 2020 legislative session, Virginia Student Power Network worked in a broad coalition and engaged 30 student leaders to advocate for in-state tuition for undocumented students, which was selected by the Governor as a priority bill and was written into law after a 15-year fight. They built upon this work during the 2021 legislative session, and Virginia is now the seventh state in the nation to give undocumented students access to state financial aid!
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they launched a statewide pressure campaign on universities to provide equitable COVID-19 relief to students, staff, and community members. They conducted research on federal CARES Act and American Rescue funding to Virginia schools to illuminate the fact that universities were still profiting from the deadly pandemic while students were incurring more debt than ever. Student organizers at the University of Virginia fought and won a tuition freeze through their “COVID Action Now” campaign. VCU student organizers held a town hall with administration and hundreds of students, faculty and staff to hold the university accountable for mishandling the pandemic.
The Washington Bus team spent this legislative session mobilizing on College Equity on House Bills 1659 and 1840. HB 1659 would have expanded Washington’s Higher Education grant program to include more folks to receive the full grant. This bill would have also added bridge grants to recipients for things outside of tuition and fees. HB 1840 was the core of the draft legislation Washington Bus organizers worked on with Communities for our Colleges. This bill would have established the task force on improving equity and diversity at the community technical colleges, and expanded mental health counseling to an additional four colleges.
Sadly both bills haven’t made it into law, but the Washington Bus team is continuously pushing to make bridge grants available to students, stronger equity and diversity initiatives on campuses, and more mental health resources a reality for more students across the state.
The Washington Bus helped to pass the Our Colleges our Future Act! They won a $33 million investment in Community and Technical Colleges (CTCs) in Washington State, with a focus on racial equity and investment in low-income, BIPoC students. This bill included mandating diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plans for all CTCs in Washington, winning funding for 200 new full-time faculty positions, funding for a pilot mental health counseling program, and funding for outreach and retention program for BIPoC students. The Our Colleges Our Future Act also changed residency requirements to make financial aid more accessible for undocumented students. Community Colleges are the backbone of our higher education system, and the Washington Bus worked tirelessly alongside partners to make sure they are investing in the education of BIPoC and low-income students.
Join our Dreams Not Debt Campaign
Wanna take action around student debt? Check out our Dreams Not Debt campaign! Millions are putting their futures on hold – buying a house, getting married, having children – because they can barely keep up with their monthly student loan payments. We’re urging the Biden administration to keep their campaign promises and cancel ALL student debt.