Not exactly a field trip

In an effort to stifle the growing trend of raising the costs of higher education, graduate students from across the country flew to Washington, D.C., in September to lobby for a bill that could save students thousands of dollars each year.

Their efforts have yet to come to fruition.

Cristiane Carvalho, the treasurer of USF’s Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC), represented USF and its 7,443 graduate students in the nationwide lobby to Congress about Bill H.R. 1380: the Higher Education Affordability and Equity Act (HEAEA). If it passes, the act will save students money by expanding tax exemption on scholarships and increasing the tax-deductibility of student loan interest.

The GPSC acts as “the representative voice for graduate students, and a connection to the administration and faculty and to really be the voice of what grad students’ needs are,” Carvalho said.

The National Association for Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS), an organization that promotes the interests of graduate and professional-degree-seeking students in public and private universities, spearheaded the campaign. Alik Widge, the legislative concerns vice chair of the NAGPS, thinks the campaign is fundamentally important on levels beyond saving money.

“Education is key to maintaining the United States as a nation and keeping our competitiveness in the world and maintaining people’s standard of living,” he said. “Literally everything in the country now depends on having a highly-educated workforce, and what’s been happening lately is a trend toward higher education getting less and less affordable, whether you’re talking at the graduate level or the undergraduate level. We’re trying to find ways that Congress can basically work against that trend.”

The savings created by the act would be applicable to undergraduate students, but would save graduate students more money because their education is generally more expensive.

Groups such as the NAGPS and GPSC are looking to get at least 100 co-sponsors for the bill to garner attention, which would make it more likely for the bill to pass. Before the lobby, there were 34 bi-partisan co-sponsors for the bill. Now, there are 43.

There has been no official co-sponsoring of the bill from Florida representatives. On her trip to D.C., Carvalho met with the legislative aides of five Florida representatives.

“It was kind of like a ‘Hey, it’s good you’re doing that; we’re looking into it,’ but there wasn’t anything official,” she said. “Really what we’re asking is for them to say that they believe in it and to sponsor it. It hasn’t even entered the process where they really have to put their name by it. It (would) just show their interest and their commitment to education at a higher level.”

Carvalho attributes the lack of sponsorship to representatives not being informed about the act. Congress is also extremely busy, she said.

Since the lobby, Carvalho has contacted all Florida representatives to inform them of the bill and to get them involved. She’s had minimal concrete results.

“The only solid, written response I have gotten is from (Rep.) Bill Young’s, (R-Fla.), office with interest to co-sponsor,” she said. “I intend on following up with them again.”

She has also heard that Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., has expressed interest in co-sponsoring the bill.

USF was one of 20 universities to lobby. Florida Atlantic University was the only other Florida university to participate.

Supporters of the bill think it would allow for more underrepresented minorities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go after advanced degrees.

“There are data out there showing that these are the groups that are most sensitive to the problem of going into debt to finance their higher education,” Widge said. “They are much less likely to be willing to take on debt, and they are much more deterred by the cost.”

Tax deductions from student loans are capped at a maximum $2,500, and the deductions are only applicable to those whose incomes are less than $65,000. If the bill passes, there will be no cap on the amount students can save from tax deductions to their student loans, and deductions will be eligible for incomes under $100,000.

In 2002, the average student loan for both undergraduate and graduate students was $31,700 with about one-third of this representing undergraduate debt, according to the 2002 National Student Loan Survey, a study sponsored by Nellie May, a nonprofit provider of student loans.

Professional school students, such as those in law and medical school, had an average of $48,500 in student loan debt, the survey said.

Federal tax exemptions on scholarships are another way that students would save money if the act were passed.

“There are certain items that are categorized as tax-exempt, like your tuition – but there are certain categories that aren’t, like money for room and board, so you’re receiving that money, which is in scholarship form, but now you’re paying taxes on it,” Carvalho said. “So, you’re not getting as much as you can get from the scholarship that you earned.”

The act would “broaden the tax-exempt status by expanding the definition of ‘qualified educational expenses.’ We believe these savings can result in $1,000 to $2,000 per year,” Carvalho said.

Students don’t need to fly to Washington to support the bill.

“If you go to our Web site (, there is a form that lets (students) send a letter to their legislatures about this, and it will take them all but a minute or two,” Widge said. “We think that this is something that every graduate student and every college student should have done well, years ago.”