Saved by Pell? Write a Letter!

Alison Beth Waldman
July 26, 2011

UPDATE 8/16/11: Check out this brand new page from U.S. PIRG to read more Letters to the Editors and the stories behind them.

“I am a freshman in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a daughter of two parents that are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. I rely on my Pell Grant to survive.  Without it, I would be in debt with student loans and never reach my full potential … and I will never become the citizen I know I can be.”
- Kitty, St. Petersburg, FL*

The facts: the federal Pell Grant program provides financial aid for low-income students for higher education. Students can use Pell for a range of postsecondary programs, from private and state universities to vocational and technical programs and community colleges.  Grants are used to help pay for tuition, books and other supplies, and transportation for students.

The Pell Grant program serves 9 million U.S. students, and has helped write millions of success stories like Kitty’s, above, since it was started in 1972.

Yet today, this effective program sits on the chopping block in Congress.  As part of the federal budget and debt ceiling debates, some Members of Congress have proposed to cut Pell and tighten maximum grant amounts and eligibility requirements for students. If these proposals are passed, 1.4 million Pell recipients would be affected, losing an average of $2,500 from their grants—which is not only a big chunk for struggling students, it's the full grant for many. (The maximum Pell grant is $5,500 per student per school year, but many students get less.) 

With Pell grants at risk, EdTrust, Young Invincibles, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) -- which fights against special interests groups' influence in government -- teamed up to hold a training on what they described as one of the most powerful ways to advocate for Pell Grants: writing and placing Letters to the Editor (LTEs). writing letters to the Editor may actually be more effective than direct lobbying for students

The Pell Grant program, as presenter and U.S. Pirg Political Correspondent Michael Wong explained, has gained bipartisan support because it is what he called a “niche” issue—it’s a specific element of the federal budget but has implications for a wide range of issues, from job creation and the economy to diversity and education.  So, it should be a no-brainer to protect, especially if enough people--and the right people--let their Members of Congress know they care and are watching what happens to Pell.

Because access to college is particularly important to, well, college students, the training was designed for students and recent graduates and focused on ways that the student voice can make a difference.

Do Hard Copy Letters Really Work?

As a recent college grad, I’m aware of the power (and the ease) of online activism and community organizing—of joining in the Save Pell campaign online, adding to the momentum on Twitter and Facebook and taking part in the Day of Action on July 25. That all comes easy to me.

Writing old-fashioned print Letters to the Editor of a local paper, however, wasn’t in my box of advocacy ammo. But the training reinforced that far from archaic, Letters to the Editor (which run online and in print) can be a very powerful way to advocate for any issue. 

Why?

U.S. PIRG's Diana Martinez explained to the group of 20-somethings at the training that Letters to the Editor get a surprising amount of eye-traffic. In print editions of the newspaper, they generally run next to the paper’s official editorials (that’s why Letters to the Editor are sometimes called “op-eds,” because historically they ran on the page opposite the editorial page). The Editorial section is the most read section of newspapers after the front page.  Not too shabby, eh? 

In addition to getting eyeballs and raising awareness about your issue, Letters to the Editor are a good way to reach influential policymakers.  Congressional staffers are particularly likely to pay attention to the Opinion and Letters sections.  Letters to the Editor are, after all, a shortcut to constituent feedback for local and state representatives.  For most Congressional staffers, a big part of their work is reading through local Letters to the Editor to find out which issues people are most concerned about—and to help their bosses determine which issues to champion and research. 

Wong has seen it happen: he and others wrote a pile of Letters to the Editor to local papers in Montana about Pell Grants, and soon received a call from a local Congressman who wanted to talk about the issue.  Again, not too shabby.

Tips for Effective Letters

Letters to the Editor reach a wide and often diverse audience -- some who know a lot about your issue and some who don’t -- so the tone and substance of your Letter matters.  The trainers shared a few essential tips to writing letter that will catch readers’ eyes and, hopefully, continue to spark their thoughts after they’ve walked away from their morning paper:

  • Locality goes a long way.  Submit your Letter to a paper in the area where you go to school. “Papers love students,” the training emphasized, so be sure to mention that you’re a local student.  Go ahead and use local nuances and references to play to the local spirit and recognition of your readers.
     
  • Get personal. Writing about your personal experience—or that of your peers—is a powerful way to explain why you care about the issue, and to make it interesting to others.
     
  • Get real, get specific.  Don’t be afraid to drop in real-world numbers, when you’re talking about the debt or tuition you or your friends face if grants are cut. U.S. PIRG gave examples like, “a cut to my aid means I have to take out more loans or maybe drop out” and “I’ll graduate with $XX,XXX of debt.”
     
  • … but go beyond the personal argument. Expand on the issue to demonstrate the breadth of the problem to the general public and students all over the country, for example, making the case that “a college or vocational education is critical to a recovering economy.” (And then back it up with research, facts and/or stories.)
     
  • Be clear about what you want your elected official to do. Vote for a specific bill? Co-sponsor X legislation? Launch research into an issue? Make your “ask” is clear and do-able.
     
  • Be concise.  Keep it short and sweet at 200 words or less. 

Now that you're totally ready to write your own Letter to the Editor, all you have to do is get it placed.  It’s easier than you think.

Where and How to Get Published

To find local media contacts you can search the masthead of your favorite paper, or you can use:

Both have super useful online media outreach tools that make finding and contacting the Editor of your local paper a cinch.  Just select your state or enter your zip, and you’ll get a list of local papers.  Select your paper(s) and write your letter right there.  Hit "send." Viola!

But you’re done yet.  Wong and Martinez suggest taking one extra step—one that gives your letter just a little more umph:

  • Within a day (or, even better, a few minutes) of sending off your letter, call your Editor (contact information for a newspaper’s Editor is usually listed on the paper's website or on the paper itself) to confirm that they received it.
  • If you're able to get an Editor or assistant on the phone, have a 30-second elevator pitch about your letter ready—explain who you are, what your letter is about, and why you think it is important for them to print.  Hopefully you’ll get a positive reaction, and if so, don’t be afraid to ask if they could tell you when to look for your letter in print. 

Following up sounds intimidating, but Wong reminded us that it's really doing both ourselves and the paper a favor. You’re validating yourself and your cause—and showing that you’re “a real person” will help give your letter some traction and make it more memorable. 

You're now equipped with the skills, tools, and stories to help Save Pell, and all you need to do is get started

If you're finding yourself in need of some inspiration, check out examples of Letters written by local students published in the Las Vegas Sun, the Des Moines Register, and Arizona's Your West Valley News

Got your letter in too?  We want to see it!  Send the text or link of your published letter to me and we’ll share it with our SparkAction audience.

Hear more success stories and take action! Here are some other campaigns and action alerts joining the fight for Pell:

  • The Faces of Student Aid: A collection of success stories of Pell Grants from students of all ages and backgrounds. They've also laid out the facts with colorful and easy-to-read charts about different financial aid packets and how cuts to Pell will effect them. They have a constant flow of stories on their Facebook page, too. 

Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant with SparkAction. Contact her at alison@sparkaction.org.

*Kitty is real person who shared her story with The Faces of Student Aid project. Find more stories of folks "saved by the Pell" on the Faces site.

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Comments

<p>It&;s sad to hear that they are thinking about cutting back on government funded grants. What&;s even harder to hear is that 1.4 million students will be affected. Like Kitty mentioned in her note, most of these students will accrue a lot of debt without this grant. Sure there are ways to resolve your debt (<a href="http://www.ccrnow.com">www.ccrnow.com</a>, for example), but it&;s so difficult for students who are graduating and aren&;t starting off with a clean slate. The Pell Grant program gets my support!
-Jill McMaster</p>

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