Student activists joined 35th District Assembly member Pedro Nava and 23rd District Congresswoman Lois Capps in front of the UCen yesterday to speak out against recent federal cuts to education.

Capps and Nava headlined the conference, with representatives from Upward Bound, California Public Interest Research Group, Associated Students and the University of California Students Association contributing to the discussion. The meeting was held to incite opposition to a $12-billion cut in the federal budget to financial aid programs, and to an increase in student loan interest rates.

“The president says that higher education is key,” Capps said. “That he would pass a bill that cuts $12 billion – the greatest [cut] in history – it’s hypocrisy.”

Capps said Congress recently made the cuts after examining the Higher Education Act, which controls funding for the federal government’s major student aid programs.

“Last month, we had a chance to fix this by looking at the Higher Education Act,” Capps said. “The legislation reauthorization is eliminating the diversity of the campus.”

Joanne Madison, director of Upward Bound, a program threatened with cancellation because of the cuts, said the program provides valuable assistance to financially disadvantaged students.

“We’re helping low-income, first-generation students,” she said. “The services we provide are essential, vital, to a campus like this.”

Capps said she supports those who need the most help in getting a decent education.

“We need to be helping people new to the country,” Capps said. “Helping people looking for ways to get out of poverty.”

Bill Shelor, an assistant director in the UCSB Financial Aid Office, said the administration is taking funding from student programs like Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP), but is redistributing some of it into new grant programs, like the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART).

“They’re taking money from LEAP and Perkins Loans to stop the [financial] hemorrhaging,” Shelor said. “The administration is planning SMART and Academic Competitiveness Grants – whole new programs.”

Shelor said the government is trying to ensure that the U.S. is up to par with the rest of the world in math and sciences with the new programs.

The recent controversy over immigration and concerns over national security seem to be sparking changes in the programs, Shelor said.

“With SMART, students get additional financial aid for majoring in math, science or critical foreign languages, which include Arabic and Chinese,” he said. “To be eligible [for either grant], the student must be a U.S. citizen, not an ‘eligible non-U.S. citizen,’ which is interesting in that it’s the most restrictive [requirement].”

Regarding these new grant programs, Capps said eliminating programs that work and replacing them with new ones is problematic.

“Upward Bound was started in Santa Barbara and has a strong tradition of students being able to go to school,” she said. “Eliminating tried and true methods is wasteful; it will cost a lot of people their jobs. Why destroy something that works?”

The requirement for students, as outlined by one of the changes, to complete a “rigorous” high school curriculum would be complicated for universities to deal with, Shelor said.

“Each college needs to come up with a litmus test to tell if the high schools students are coming from are ‘rigorous,'” he said.

However, one advantage to the reforms, Shelor said, is that the aid would go to students who need it the most.

“The good thing about these new programs is they’re going to the neediest students,” Shelor said. “What they’re doing is re-targeting the aid to specific groups of people, as opposed to the lowest common denominator.”

Christine Byon, co-chair of the UCSB CalPIRG chapter, said the decision to increase loan interest rates adds to the problem of student loan debt.

“Loan debt is forcing students out of low-paying but important jobs like teaching,” she said.

Nava said he knows firsthand how far public education can take students.

“I am a proud product of public education – public elementary school, public middle school, public high school, public university,” he said. “And I am a product of [educational] outreach.”

A.S. Student Lobby chair Delaina Contreras, a third-year history major, said that through outreach programs, college becomes an attainable goal for many underprivileged students.

“Outreach [programs] are programs that are very vital to this campus – [they] foster a college-going mentality,” she said. “Many groups, like [Black Student Union] and Hermanos Unidos, bring high school students to show them college life.”

Shelor said students should stand up for their financial aid.

“Higher education is one piece of the federal budget, and the only constituents of higher education are students,” Shelor said. “Student aid is always under attack. Students need to be lobbying and having people like Lois Capps and Pedro Nava on their sides. Pedro can do stuff on the state level and Lois can do it at the national level, but she’s in a minority there.”

Capps said students can fight against the aid cuts and interest rate increases by sending a clear message to their representatives and by voting.

“We need student activists [and] there are a bunch on this campus,” Capps said. “Send a message loud and clear: Students need to mobilize. It’s an age group that traditionally hasn’t made itself heard, but there’s never been a better reason for students to vote. Every single college student votes this November.”