Students from Virginia21 chapters across the state took direct action with legislators this past Wednesday, Feb. 1. They took a stand in the halls of the Virginia General Assembly to support the organization’s goal of non-partisan advocacy for student issues as part of the club’s annual lobby day.
Virginia21’s lobbying efforts this year were targeted at four main pieces of legislation relating to college affordability and student rights. Virginia21’s Executive Director Jared Calfee talked through the details of each bill.
The first, HB1410, would prevent institutions from using in-state tuition revenue to fund in-state financial aid. According to Calfee, if HB1410 were to pass, $86 million of revenue for institutions sourced from in-state tuition payments — which would go toward in-state financial aid — would be lost. Virginia21 opposed this bill.
Supporters of HB1410, a bill sponsored by Del. Dave Albo (R-Springfield), argue that it would decrease the full-price tuition rate for students. However, Calfee said that this legislation would actually make it harder for students from working class families to afford college and would do little to benefit those students who can already afford to pay full tuition.
The second bill, HB2427/SB1527, aims to incentivize four-year graduation by enhancing financial aid to help students graduate with minimal debt. Students enrolled in classes full-time would be eligible for increased financial aid under this bill. It would also provide increased financial aid incentives for students each year that they advance in college, instead of encouraging front-loading scholarships. Calfee said that this bill enjoys bipartisan support.
Additionally, Virginia21 supports SB1053, known as the student loan bill of rights, which aims to protect students from predatory lending practices. This bill would require student loan servicers to be certified by an independent state regulatory agency, establish uniform procedures in loan repayment processes and educate graduates on how to make informed decisions about repayments.
Virginia21 Deputy Director James Morton encouraged students to share personal stories when speaking to legislators; he said this is the most effective way to get through to them.
Virginia21 member Samantha Boateng ’20, an in-state student from northern Virginia, said that of the bills for which Virginia21 was lobbying, those relating to college affordability were her top priority.
“I really appreciate these bills, especially the ones focusing on financial aid, because they’re really important to me,” Boateng said. “I get loans and financial aid so if that was taken away, then I probably wouldn’t be able to come to William and Mary.”
Finally, Virginia21 supported SB926, a noise ordinance reform bill. SB926, which passed unanimously in the senate, would give localities the right to downgrade a noise violation from criminal penalty to a civil citation. This legislation would protect students from extensive legal fees and from having criminal records after a one-time noise violation.
Morton explained that during the lobby, students would meet with the legislators or legislative aides that represent their school districts to discuss key legislation that would directly affect them. This year’s goals, which adopted a more defensive approach than in years past, kept the improvement of the quality of colleges and universities in Virginia and the promotion of job advocacy for young people at their core.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam also stopped by to address the group. Northam, who is running for governor this year, emphasized the importance of political engagement and focused on issues like strengthening the economy and defending the Affordable Care Act.
Northam spoke out specifically against President Donald Trump’s recent executive order concerning immigration, which Northam called anti-American. On the issue of voting rights, he criticized legislation that would make it more cumbersome for people to vote, calling such efforts undemocratic.
“We in Virginia, we in this country, have to be inclusive,” Northam said.
Northam concluded his remarks on a lighter note by telling the group to enjoy the open bar at the Late Night with Virginia21 reception.
“The only thing standing between you and happy hour is me,” Northam said.
Students then headed over to Sam Miller’s on Cary Street to mingle with Virginia21 members from other schools as well as legislators and staffers. Gov. Terry McAuliffe gave a few short remarks at the beginning of the event, and with drinks and appetizers appearing, socializing and networking took over for the rest of the night.
Early the following morning, the Virginia21 group walked over to the General Assembly Building to spend the morning lobbying. A group of high school students from Inspire Virginia, another non-partisan student advocacy organization, joined the Virginia21 groups to shadow them. After meeting with legislators, the organizers encouraged the group to attend the meetings for the House education committee, the House appropriations committee and the Senate finance committee, which would be key to advancing Virginia21’s legislative concerns.
Another club member, Kayla Temple ’20, said that she joined Virginia21 because she was drawn to the club’s non-partisan approach to student advocacy. Temple said she has always been interested in education policy and was particularly interested in opposing HB1410.
“$86 million is a lot of money to just cut out from underneath the students of Virginia. I think a lot of people have an issue with the way other students’ full tuition will help pay for financial aid [for other students], but the bill doesn’t really address that and it would probably actually worsen that issue,” Temple said. “What you’re really doing is making the school pay for financial aid and the best source of revenue for a school is donations, which they can’t rely on, and tuition, which they can.”
In the subcommittee review for HB1410 Wednesday afternoon, Del. Albo, the bill’s patron, introduced a substitute bill that removed restrictions and reductions to financial aid.
Virginia21 Communications Director Tim Cywinski spoke to the importance of Virginia21’s lobbying efforts in effecting this kind of legislative change.
“This legislative action was a result of your advocacy efforts, and the significant amount of Virginia21 students — almost enough to pack the entire committee room — that were willing to speak against the original bill,” Cywinski said in a follow-up email to lobby day.
Additionally, SB1053, the student loan protections bill, was approved by the senate finance committee that afternoon after discussion and student testimonials and will move on to a full-Senate vote.
Greg Akerman ’18, president of the College of William and Mary’s chapter of Virginia21, said that Virginia21’s outreach efforts are important as they allow students to develop strong working relationships with their local representatives.
“We are very lucky to have great relationships with our legislators. We met today with Del. Mike Mullin [D-Newport News] and Sen. Monty Mason [D-Williamsburg],” Akerman said. “Monty let us know immediately after our meeting that he was voting yes on [SB1053] … So that’s very important because the people that go to these meetings, for some of them it’s their first time lobbying — it’s important for them to see direct action.”
Akerman said that annual lobby day is a testament to the unique role students can play in politics.
“There aren’t that many states that have organizations that are solely dedicated to financial aid funding and in general lobbying for students and Virginia21 is a great example of what can happen when young people come together,” Akerman said.