State Rep. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) gathered with student volunteers from Organizing for America at a press conference yesterday to celebrate the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama last month as part of the health care reform bill.

The act aims to overhaul the financial aid system by making the federal government a direct lender, which will eliminate banks as middlemen in the student lending process. The bill will also change the timeline for student borrowers. Beginning immediately, students who take out new loans will be able to cut off their monthly payments at 15 percent of their discretionary incomes. In addition, the bill will increase the maximum Pell Grant to $5,550 and will tie the rise of Pell Grants to the cost of living by indexing it to the consumer price index.

Chris Wolff, regional field director for Organizing for America, opened the event by discussing the benefits of the overhaul, which he said the group was able to achieve due to the dedication of “amazing volunteers” like those at the University.

Wolff introduced LSA sophomore Nina Bhattacharya — who works with Organizing for America — to discuss the benefits she and students like her will reap from the overhaul.

Bhattacharya said that for most of high school she was part of a “middle-class family living comfortably in the suburbs,” but then her dad was “suddenly laid off” and her family was forced to live off of her mom’s salary from a part-time job.

She added that things that she used to take for granted like appointments at the eye doctor or dentist or her parents’ medication suddenly became a huge expense.

“When my dad lost his job, we also lost our health insurance,” Bhattacharya said.

Bhattacharya said that though her father was a graduate of both the University’s School of Public Health and the Ross School of Business, he was still sending out résumés every day for 14 months before he found another job. With this in mind, Bhattacharya said she applied only to in-state schools, though she knew even attending the University could be a struggle.

“The thought of putting the burden of out-of-state tuition on my parents didn’t sit well with me,” she said.

Though Bhattacharya was able to get through her freshman year pretty easily with the help of scholarships and loans, she said with Michigan’s struggling economy, her situation became more challenging this year.

“This year was a lot more difficult,” she said. “Without the federal loans, I wouldn’t have gotten through this year.”

Bhattacharya went on to say that the financial aid overhaul is important because it will give students across the country the aid they need.

“This isn’t just my story; it’s the story of thousands of other students,” she said, adding that the bill “has a lot of components that help struggling students like myself.”

Warren said the economic downturn has not only meant difficulty for students like Bhattacharya but also for the state’s economy. She emphasized the need to fund higher education, adding that Michigan residents can’t count on manufacturing jobs that were a staple of the state’s economy.

“Those jobs are gone and they’re not coming back,” she said.

Warren said that to cope with this job loss, the state needs to increase its investment in higher education.

“We know that that’s the great equalizer, that’s the investment we want to make, but we’ve been struggling,” she said.

Warren added that the financial aid overhaul will be extremely important to students throughout her district and the state.

In an interview following the press conference, Warren said that though the legislature has been forced to make “difficult decisions,” “investments in higher education have to be the priority.”

Warren said in the interview that her commitment to higher education is an important part of her campaign for state Senator. Warren is running against state Rep. Pam Byrnes (D–Lyndon Twp.) for the Senate seat currently occupied by state Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor).

Warren said her campaign is based on her “values” and her “vision for Michigan,” which includes making sure a college education is affordable for every Michigan student.

“We’re not going to have a whole class of students be priced out,” she said.

Warren added that she wants to decrease the burden of tuition on Michigan families.

“Every time our state pays less, our students and families have to come up with more,” she said. “And sometimes they just can’t.”

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