published Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Chattanooga area students immersed in politics of college loans

A pair of local college students have met with members of Congress and even the president this summer.

Mekal Smith, a Chattanooga native studying at Tuskegee University, went to the Capitol in late June to advocate for a program that is supposed to help poor kids go to college.

And Robert Fisher, the student body president at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has spent the whole summer in Washington, D.C. He has met with lawmakers and pushed for a solution to the student loan interest rate debate. Congress has gone back and forth on the issue for months.

On June 20, Fisher spoke at a news conference with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and five House Democrats. Fisher called for a temporary solution.

Fisher and 119 other student body presidents also wrote a letter outlining their views. They want the interest rates of subsidized Stafford loans to sit at 3.4 percent for two more years while Congress hashes out a long-term plan. Subsidized Stafford loans are for low-income students.

The letter calls for three other things: A loan repayment plan based on a student's income; a promise from Congress to put all savings from the new plan into the government's education budget, and -- should a plan tie student interest rates to the market -- a cap on just how high rates can go.

Before their news conference to share this stance, the college students met briefly with Pelosi and the other representatives. Just some handshakes, just some greetings. That was it.

Fisher, who is interning this summer with the Center for American Progress, stood behind President Barack Obama in May as he called for a solution to the interest rate debates.

The president met with the students in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Again, the meeting was quick -- just a few handshakes. But Fisher said he won't forget it.

On June 30, with Congress unable to agree on a solution, the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. On July 10, the Senate voted down a Democrat-backed plan to lower the rate back to 3.4 percent for a year.

A long-term plan still has not been reached.

"The initial reaction was a little disappointed," Fisher said. "Congress gave itself a year to take care of the issues. ... It wasn't a lot of anger. I was just hopeful that they would come to a compromise."

Meanwhile Smith, the Tuskegee student, flew to the Capitol in late June and spent a week advocating for federal funding for Gear Up, a grant program for students in poor areas. The money goes toward an after-school program in middle and high school that is dedicated to helping children prepare for college.

Smith joined the program in seventh grade at East Lake Academy. Almost every day for six years, he stayed after school with Gear Up counselors. They tutored him in math class and, later, at Howard High School, they prepared him for the ACT.

When he looked at colleges, one counselor encouraged him to go to Tuskegee instead of enrolling in a university close to home. Moving away would force him to make new friends, and to grow.

"[Gear Up] gave me an influence," Smith said. "It gave me a mentor through high school."

Last month, Smith and 29 other college students from throughout the country met with political leaders to push for the government to continue to fund the program.

Smith said he met with educational policy advisers as well as aides to Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, both Chattanooga Republicans.

"I was a little nervous," Smith said. "But it got easy knowing what I was doing it for."

Smith, who will be a sophomore forensics psychology major this fall, is spending the summer as a Gear Up counselor.

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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