At a time when young people need a college education to compete in the U.S. workforce, the federal government is cutting aid that affects Hispanic college students and institutions.
The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, HACU, which represents more than 400 Hispanic-serving institutions, convened its 17th annual Capitol Forum in Washington, D.C. on Monday and Tuesday. The conference not only served to guide university officials to locate funds for projects and students, but to lobby directly to members of Congress to protect existing grants, aid programs and help keep more Hispanic college students enrolled.
“The forum allows HACU’s members to understand legislation proposed by HACU on our behalf,” said Dr. José Jaime Rivera, president of Puerto Rico’s University of the Sacred Heart and former chair of HACU’s governing board.
“Not to mention areas where the organization perceives the most potential, and data that the organization has compiled, which is fundamental for universities that serve the Hispanic community.” Rivera called HACU the most important organization among Hispanic-serving higher learning institutions in the United States.
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Is Congress listening?
A conference of this kind brings with it certain challenges. Rivera said that one of the forum’s main challenges is finding members of Congress who want to listen to what HACU has to say.
“What we bring to these visits is the reality of the Hispanic community,” he said. “(And) the necessity for the nation to understand that if it doesn’t invest in Hispanics’ education, the future will be very negative, because the main working force for the upcoming decades will be the Hispanic population.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ileana Rodríguez García, president of the Association of Private Colleges and Universities of Puerto Rico, expressed at the end of the forum Tuesday her disappointment regarding visits to different Capitol Hill offices.
“We received mixed reactions,” she told VOXXI, adding that they did receive support from Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, D-Puerto Rico. “Other representatives don’t have the same vision, meaning that they don’t really see the reality that education is something necessary for the development of any country.” Rodriguez is also president of Carlos Albizu University, which has campuses in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Rodríguez – who kicked off the forum as moderator of the workshop “Funding Opportunities at the Federal Level,” with the participation of officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security – said she hopes they were able to deliver their message on behalf of Hispanic college students, even though they were not always able to talk directly to members of Congress.
“Sadly, in some cases, we couldn’t meet with the actual member of Congress, we had to meet with staffers,” Rodríguez said.
“And sometimes one wonders, ‘Could they really transmit one’s message to the representative? Or are their minds already made up about what we want to say?’”
On the other hand, Juan Carlos Nazario, president of American University of Puerto Rico, said the key is to follow-up on the conversations between members of congress and educators.
“We must present a good case and follow up in order to achieve our goals,” Nazario said. But apart from meeting with lawmakers, he said that one of the perks of having the forum is to meet officials from other universities and develop some projects with them.
“That kind of interaction is very important because it allows us to open new doors,” Nazario said.
Cuts to Pell Grant hurt Hispanic college students
The forum comes at a crucial time for educational institutions. The Federal Pell Grant Program, which provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students, is now facing changes and significant cuts. Changes include cutting the amount of time that students can take advantage of the program.
“We could lose many potential professionals, many students with the potential to help the economy in a substantial way,” said Nazario. “Investing in education is investing in the future of the country.”
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Rodríguez said that about 30 percent of Puerto Rican students will be affected due to the new cuts to the grant, while Rivera said that these new budget cuts are a disaster that will affect thousands of Hispanic college students who depend on the grant to attend college.
“This will just make it harder for institutions that have a commitment to Hispanic students to access resources to keep serving the community,” Rivera said. “It’s not just the future of Hispanics that is at stake here. It’s the future of the country.”
“Private institutions that are not for profit depend on tuition in order to do our job,” Rodríguez said. “We do not want to increase tuition. How can you increase tuition with the current economic situation? I think legislators have to set some priorities, and education must be among them. A country with no education cannot go anywhere.”