Congressman Salud Carbajal — joined by students from UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — visited UCSB on May 25 to announce his updated Degrees Not Debt Act.
Carbajal represents California’s 24th congressional district, which includes Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
The proposed legislation would double the Pell Grant to $13,800 if passed, a change Carbajal spoke strongly in favor of as he cited the current struggles of college students to combat rising costs of higher education.
“I’m thrilled to be here at my alma mater to announce the reintroduction of my bill, the Degrees Not Debt Act,” Carbajal said. “The act counters the rising costs of higher education, as well as provides much needed support to students in our community and across the nation. Making higher education more financially attainable is an essential way we can invest in future generations while strengthening our education system.”
Carbajal opened the event by announcing that Congress would soon renew efforts to pass gun laws in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas where two teachers and 19 children were killed the day prior, and initiated a moment of silence for the victims.
“In two weeks when we return back to Congress … we will be taking up legislation to move forward some bills that address and move forward common sense gun laws, some of the gun laws that we’ve been contemplating, including my bill, which is called the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act,” Carbajal said.
“I want to ask us for a moment of silence reflecting on those young children that won’t have another day, whose parents won’t have the ability to see them grow up, all the things that they will miss out on and the pain that it’s caused to their loved ones,” he continued.
After the reflection, Carbajal moved onto a discussion of the Pell Grant and student aid. The congressman emphasized the importance of financial aid in college, attributing his ability to obtain an education at UCSB to the assistance he received.
“Many students today will not be able to attend college without financial assistance. I know I would not have been able to, myself,” Carbajal said. “I was the first in my family to graduate from college from a four-year university, and that achievement did not come without assistance in the form of working multiple jobs, student loans and veterans education assistance programs, and of course, financial aid.”
“All persons should have the opportunity to attend a higher education should they want to,” he continued. “However, without education being more affordable, many individuals just don’t have that opportunity.”
The maximum Federal Pell Grant Award is currently $6,895, which is far below the $10,000 average cost of annual in-state tuition fees. The updated Degrees Not Debt Act would expand the Federal Pell Grant and automatically adjust it for inflation annually.
UCSB Director of Financial Aid Saúl Quiroz said that the rising cost of college is eroding the value of the Pell Grant. Quiroz cited federal statistics, stating that the Federal Pell Grant covered more than 75% of a student’s four-year college costs 40 years ago, and today covers less than 20%.
“The current maximum Pell Grant no longer meets students’ needs,” Quiroz said at the event. “Students continue to lack adequate food and housing security as well as access to childcare, technology and other resources that are necessary.”
Carbajal said the initiative was an integral way to address student needs.
“This doubling of the Pell Grant award amount would make higher education certainly more affordable for many students, while reducing the amount of potential student debt they may take on,” he said.
Carbajal then introduced student speaker Sarah Steichen, a third-year political science major at Cal Poly SLO and a recipient of the Pell Grant.
“As a first-generation college student, I have relied heavily on various support networks in order to make all my dreams come to fruition,” Steichen said. “On top of helpful scholarship programs and family and friends, the Pell Grant has greatly helped me achieve my goals.”
Steichen, raised by a single mother who never attended college, said navigating the college application process, financial aid systems and higher education itself was “exciting but nerve wracking.”
Amidst this, she said the Pell Grant was a source of stress relief, affording her financial security and independence.
“I’m about to graduate, and I feel a little bit less stressed out knowing that paying back my student loans doesn’t seem like an unrealistic fantasy,” she said. “That being said, the current amount that the Pell Grant has to offer does not fully cover all of my tuition and dorming costs, so I don’t need to paint the picture that I’ve been entirely stress free regarding my finances or that I’m 100% assured about my financial future.”
Despite the federal grant assistance, Steichen still took out student loans and said she expects to prioritize making enough income to pay down that debt as she embarks on her post-graduation career.
“Sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated when a lot of other people have the luxury of being able to pay for their tuition, and their family is able to pay for their tuition, out of pocket,” she said. “They have the luxury of being able to take gap years or take unpaid internships, whereas I also have to focus on making savvy career moves while making enough of an income to pay back all my loans.”
Steichen affirmed the need to double the Pell Grant and urged further progress in national efforts to improve college affordability.
“There’s still so much more work that can be done to make college education accessible to people across various socioeconomic backgrounds. I’m very thankful for all that the Federal Pell grant provided to me at my time at Cal Poly, and I’m hopeful that you continue to make even larger impacts on students,” Steichen said.
Third-year sociology major Angela Bradley said that the Pell Grant enabled her to return to school and support her family as a 47-year-old single mother of five.
“After leaving a difficult marriage of 25 years, I knew I needed to do something to provide for my kids. Since I was a stay-at-home mom for 17 years I’ve had very little education and even less job skills,” she said at the event. “I landed a job as a waitress but I was barely making ends meet. I knew deep down that I needed to go back to school and get an education, but I didn’t believe it would be possible.”
“To my surprise, I qualified for the Pell Grant, and that enabled me to get myself back in school,” she continued. “The Pell Grant gave me more time to focus on school and spend a little more time with my kids. It also helped me put gas in my car and get myself back and forth to school, purchase more nutritious groceries and buy the required books and supplies I needed.”
Upon graduation, Bradley said she intends to give back to her community by working with victims of domestic violence. She advocated for doubling the Pell Grant, saying that greater financial support would allow herself and others to access more basic needs resources, reduce student loan debt burden and offset the rising cost of living.
Carbajal said that with the reintroduction of his revised bill, he looks forward to working with other members of Congress to generate legislative support.
“I’m working with as many of my colleagues that I can get to sign on to the bill, so that we could move it forward,” he said, “Oftentimes, when a piece of legislation is introduced it could move forward, it could actually take a number of years to get over the finish line on its own, or it can be folded into a broader bigger piece of legislation as has been done many of times.”
Carbajal also addressed the broader student debt crisis, promising to fight for significant student loan forgiveness.
“I have advocated to President Biden that we must address the current student debt crisis and provide meaningful student loan cancellation,” he said. “I promise to keep fighting for our students because you are the next generation of leaders, advocates and influencers. We must ensure that the next generation gets a fair chance at reaching their full potential.”