WASHINGTON -- When students have wanted to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill, traditionally they've delivered petitions to Congress, organized a rally or started a grassroots advocacy campaign. But the University of Florida's student government is trying to get lawmakers' attention by means more often available only to big industries -- by hiring a federal lobbyist.
The students at UF hired Cardenas Partners in 2012, and pay $1,500 a month to reach out to lawmakers about interest rates on student loans, Pell Grants, education benefits for veterans and STEM visas.
Christina Bonarrigo, student government president, said having a lobbyist to represent their interests has enhanced their influence in Washington, particularly on the issue of student aid.
"We were pushing this year for a long-term solution to ensure that students have stability and security in the loan that they are taking out," said Bonarrigo.
Butch Oxedine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, said students typically travel to Capitol Hill with a state association or individually to speak about higher education issues with members of Congress.
"There are probably a handful that will pay an outside lobby firm to do it," Oxedine said of student groups. "But generally it's the students themselves, they'll have a lobby director who's a student herself."
Unlike many schools, the university administration does not have a D.C. office and uses an outside firm for its federal lobbying efforts. This left the students without a connection to Capitol Hill, says Bonarrigo, which made hiring a lobbying firm seem like a fruitful endeavor.
"It was hard to find out what is going on in D.C. 'What stances should we take? How should we handle it on social media? And how do we effectively convey our message to these members?' And since [hiring Cardenas], we've been way more streamlined," she said. "Every year since we've had federal representation, we've had better and better and better meetings."
Cardenas Partners, a lobbying firm home to multiple UF alumni, reached out to the school's student government about helping with its lobbying efforts, according to Carl Chidlow, a partner at Cardenas.
"They were able to rejigger their budget slightly," he said. "I think it's a very humble amount, but we still appreciate it, and I think we do good work for them."
The UF student government has unusual spending power with an annual budget of between $4 million and $5 million, which comes from student fees rather than tuition or state funds, according to Bonarrigo. And the student government decides how to spend it, primarily on student activities like intramural athletics and campus concerts.
"We take it very serious when it comes to ensuring that students are represented when it comes to their fees and to not just arbitrarily give out money for no reason," said Bonarrigo.
Cardenas representatives do not meet with lawmakers on behalf of students. Instead, when students are in Washington, the firm puts them in touch with lawmakers, and during the year, informs the student government about issues of interest that are happening on the Hill.
"It's student run, it's student led, and it's student focused," Bonarrigo said. "[The lobbyists] don't even speak in our meetings. They just help us set up the meetings. And then they brief us on the issues."
Bonarrigo stressed how crucial it is that students go to the Hill themselves, and said that members have thanked the students for coming in personally.
"It means a lot to them to have a student go there, as opposed to administration or an outside organization," she said.
She added that because student government has been using a lobbyist, she feels the university's students are really being heard, through meeting with members outside of the Florida delegation and having their statements read into the congressional record -- feats the students had not accomplished without representation.
Oxedine, however, questioned how useful and effective it is for student governments to spend time and resources talking to members of Congress about issues like student aid. He said that students should instead focus on "bread-and-butter" campus issues like fixing potholes and better choices in the dining hall.
"How effective is the lobbying?" Oxedine said. "That's really debatable."
Other student governments are working to address the cost of education, albeit without lobbyists.
At the University of Maryland, the student government has placed more emphasis on working with state rather than federal government, according to Sam Zwerling, the undergraduate student body president.
"We focus a lot more on the state government, just because we're a state school and we get our budget that way," Zwerling said. "Things like Pell Grants and what we're going through right now with the Stafford student loan interest rates, and things on the federal level, are more like band-aids to the bigger problem, which is that higher education is expensive. And for public institutions, that's defined by how much funding the state gives."
The UF student government does also lobby the state government on issues, for which it has hired a separate firm. This year, it mostly focused on funding issues, and secured an increase in state funding for the university. Bonarrigo said the student government does not prioritize either state or federal lobbying, but focuses on whatever issues affect students most.
At the University of Missouri, while the student government has reached out to Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), it has focused more on facilitating student advocacy, according to Camille Hosman, the organization's legislative advocacy officer. She said that she feels the students can rely on the university administration's lobbyists to represent their interests to Congress.
"I know that the University of Missouri has a lobbyist, and so I don't see why we would need a different one," she said.
Both Bonarrigo and Chidlow, though, feel that it's important for students to be actively involved in federal issues that affect them.
"Students nowadays are so plugged in through social media ... so they're getting information from all sources, and they may or may not ask their student government leaders, 'What's going on with student loan rates? How will this affect me?'" Chidlow said. "So we're able to give them up-to-the-minute intel they can report back to, essentially, their constituents."
Bonarrigo sees the UF's impact on the federal level only growing. She said that having federal representation has helped the students fine-tune their message and effectively communicate with lawmakers.
"I know that our students are being represented as best as they can be, and maybe even the best in the country," she said.