An Interview with Max Lubin on How Rise Advocates for College Students at State Capitols: 

Max Lubin is the CEO of Rise, a student-led advocacy organization on a mission to ensure that the cost of higher education never prevents students from pursuing their dreams in college and beyond. Max is a graduate student currently on leave from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former Obama Administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Education. We had the opportunity to talk about how Rise is making a positive impact on the college affordability crisis and in helping meet students’ basic needs.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

To start things off, tell me about the origins of Rise.

The story of Rise starts two years ago. I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and had been meeting student peers from all over California. We started to think about why the college affordability crisis had become so bad and why our current organizations and institutions were not well-equipped to solve it. So to research the issue, we formed informal focus groups with high school students throughout the state. And what we heard was that many of them wanted to go to college, earn a degree and work hard, but felt the cost was prohibitive and in some cases not even worth it. 

Can you explain how the cost of college has gotten so out of control?

Yes, so we learned that states have cut billions of dollars from public higher education funding since the 1970s. Over time, higher education has shifted in the public consciousness from something that was a public good and helpful for society to grow to something thought of as an individual success. So as a society we shifted investment in college from the state to individuals. 

Right, and that’s not limited to cash-strapped states. 

Not at all. It happened even in progressive states like California which has a booming economy and now runs multi-billion dollar surpluses. We have more students than ever enrolling in public higher education and only recently has the state returned to pre-Recession funding levels. And so in states that have less leadership on the issue of public higher education, the funding realities for students look much much worse. 

How did these findings spark the birth of Rise?

Our focus groups revealed that students don’t have the same type of advocates working on their behalf as other groups do. If you care about the environment you can work at the Sierra Club. If you care about reproductive justice you can work at Planned Parenthood. But if you care about the college affordability crisis, there’s really not a mainstream advocacy organization for you to join where you as a student or volunteer can make a real impact. So two years ago we set out to create a student-led advocacy organization that could really make a difference. 

What kind of work does the organization take part in?

We amplify student voices so they’re as strong as any other professional advocacy group in a state capitol. This includes organizing advocacy and lobbying trips so that students can meet directly with legislators to demand funding increases and advocate for priorities like free community college. And we mobilize college students to vote because if they don’t show up to the polls then there’s really no way to hold our elected officials accountable. 

What excites you about Rise?

One of the things that excites me is that student leaders are our driving force. It’s been a remarkable two years and we’re now working with thousands of students across multiple states. 

Tell me about the students. 

The vast majority of our team is composed of current college students from community colleges and universities. And we pay them. If you’re a college student who has to work three jobs just to remain in school, there’s no way you can participate in advocacy unless you’re paid to do it. And we also provide them with research, training, and support to execute campaigns that align with their goals. 

What are some of their goals?

We advocate for free tuition at public colleges and universities, financial aid, support so that students graduate on time without becoming hungry or homeless, and the resources needed to thrive in college like counselors, coaching, and mental health resources. 

What’s your role as CEO?

My job is to do everything that I can to make it easy for students to advocate for themselves. I take a lot of unglamorous fundraising work off the table so our students can focus on their advocacy mission. I’m responsible for creating the legal and operational infrastructure to make that possible. 

At only two years old Rise has already won a string of success. Tell me about those.

First, I should say that our elected leaders, by and large, want to do the right thing. They’re just not used to seeing 40 students show up at state capitols to have their voices heard on priorities they care about. And so here in California that phenomena has helped enact two years of free community college. 

We also led a campaign last year to stop the CSU and UC tuition hike. I’m proud of our students for working with their institutions in lobbying state legislators to add hundreds of millions of dollars over what Governor Brown proposed in his budget into the state college systems.

Tell me about your current campaign, LA 2050. What is it and what are its goals?

I’m originally a native Angeleno and at Rise we want to make structural changes happen in the local communities where we live. So the other factor that makes college so expensive is that the cost of living has exploded here in California and across the country. Because of that, half of community college students experience food insecurity. One in five has experienced homelessness in the past year. In the UC and Cal State systems, a number of students are unable to graduate because their basic needs aren’t being met. 

At UC Irvine, the student government voted for an emergency measure to use their student fees, about $400,000 of it, to fund campus-based basic needs. We wanted to do something similar on LA County campuses. So we applied for and won an LA 2050 grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation to execute three campaign goals.

One, we want to connect Cal-Fresh (California’s monthly food benefits program) with existing financial aid systems. Two, we’re identifying existing campus structures like parking lots that can provide safe, emergency housing for students sleeping in their cars, or gyms that can offer shelter. Three, our goal is to build a permanent student advocacy infrastructure so that the basic needs of every student in LA County are continually met. 

What are the next steps for LA 2050? 

We’re piloting these three campaigns this fall and aim to scale our efforts in the spring. We’ve hired ten student organizers from UCLA, Los Angeles City College, and Pasadena City College to begin implementing the campaigns on their campuses. We’ve also hired a Cal State Fullerton student to oversee those fellows and help them manage their programs. 

Is there a campus you aren’t on in California?

We’ve been lucky to find supporters all over the state. But there’s well over 150 public colleges and universities in California, so we have a lot more to grow to reach every campus. 

You should know that you always have an ally and partner in the Michelson 20MM Foundation. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

California has nearly 3 million students, which is more than the population of New Mexico. And so if we think about our students as a state of their own, we see there’s a huge need to invest in student advocacy if we’re to solve the basic needs crisis. We can’t just fund programs to address food insecurity and student homelessness, we need ongoing advocacy to really make a difference. 


Author: Miguel León is a Program Officer at the Michelson 20MM Foundation. His work focuses on student access and success as well as policy, government relations, and external affairs.

The Michelson 20MM Foundation and its initiatives are made possible by the generous support of Gary K. Michelson, M.D. and his wife, Alya Michelson.