UAA Students voice needs to legislators

Sometimes the only way to be heard is to have an entire team represent your needs.
At the end of last month, a group of nine newly appointed student Legislative Advocacy Team members and their leader went to Juneau to get students’ needs heard. Their main focus this year was Senate Bill 33 (and similar House Bill 94), the Alaska Achievers’ Incentive Scholarship Program.
“We got a good reception down there,” USUAA Government Relations Director Peter Finn said. “They always sound positive when they’re talking to you, but I didn’t get a whole lot of people who were saying they would absolutely vote for it.”
Days after the team returned, however, three more representatives and one senator signed their name as sponsors to AAIP.
Sponsored by Sen. Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage), AAIP is a bill that would create a critical needs merit based grant.
“We spent a lot of time pressing the idea that we’re not asking for money this year. We’re just asking for the structure for the funds to be set up,” Finn said.
The advocacy team spoke with legislators one-on-one, letting them know that the bill was just to set up an endowment that could at a later time be filled with federal stimulus money or private donations.
“Or more than likely,” Finn said, “we’ll just go back next year or later in the session and ask them to float some money our way.”
Finn said most of the legislators seemed receptive to this idea. To better illustrate the need for SB33, he said they used HB109 as a comparison.
HB 109, drafted by Sen. Paul Seaton (R-Homer), would require students applying for the Alaska Supplemental Education Loan to have good credit or a viable co-signer. If passed, many students would have to rely on other sources of financial assistance.
“HB 109 was one of our talking points on why we need them to support SB33 and HB94,” Finn said. “It was something we discussed rather frequently.”
Ted Malone, the director of Student Financial Assistance at UAA, wrote in an e-mail that state loans are a good program when federal loans are not enough, but that students should first apply for federal student aid.
“There is no circumstance in which the [state loan] is cheaper,” Malone said. “The Federal Stafford Loan has a maximum interest rate of 6.8 percent. [The state loan] base rate is 7.3 percent. It is designed to supplement the federal programs.”
John Roberson is the student commissioner on the Alaska Commission for Postsecondary Education, which first proposed the bill.
“There’s been a lot of confusion amongst student government about HB109,” Roberson said. “In my last year as a commissioner, I’ve started to turn against student loans in general, just because I think there are better ways for students to pay for their education.”
Roberson said there are a lot of different options available to students including scholarships and working more hours.
“This does not necessarily make it so students can’t go to college. It’s not enormously detrimental. This does not kill a large segment of students who could go to school,” he said. “It does make it more difficult in that students would have to find other options.”
At the time of publication, HB94 was in the Education and Finance Committees, which is chaired by Rep. Seaton.
There is another glimmer of hope for students in need of financial assistance going through the legislature this year. HB 58 would offer loan forgiveness in whole or part to students majoring in certain fields such as engineering and health services or other occupations that are experiencing a shortage of qualified employees.