The rising cost of higher education makes it easy to leave young people behind, especially first-generation students of color. As a current first-generation Latina student, I experienced several setbacks that made me feel a college degree was out of my reach. During my senior year in high school, I set my goal of attending a four-year college and made sure to attend various college fairs to explore all my options. It was an exciting time as my peers were all applying to four-year colleges and universities, and figuring out their plans post-high school.
My plan was to attend Colorado State University, but its expensive price tag and my family situation forced me to shift my plan. At the time, my mom was in the process of acquiring legal status and the proceedings cost more than $15,000, which my parents struggled to pay. I didn’t want to add another financial burden with my education because attending a four-year institution would mean that my mom’s proceedings would be put on hold. I could not imagine putting my mother’s future at risk for the sake of my education. Graduating from college without her here was not an option for me.
Being only 17 and having to make these tough life-changing decisions induced much anxiety and stress for me. Also, I knew I had to continue my education no matter what because my parents had fought hard to make a living in this country for us and their American Dream was to see their daughter pursue a professional career. I decided to work during my senior year in high school in hopes of saving enough money to attend a four-year university. I pushed myself to work hard and save as much as I could. Unfortunately, I did not have enough saved up at the end to fulfill my goal. Not achieving my goal was a difficult reality for me to process – I felt hopeless and depressed during this period. My family did not want me to delay my education and encouraged me to consider community college as an option. I decided to pursue this alternative as a way to not put my dreams on complete hold.
Attending a community college was more affordable, but given my family’s limited financial situation, paying for community college was still a challenge. Essentially, I’ve realized pursuing higher education isn’t cheap. My experience has solidified my belief that our current higher education system is not affordable for young people, especially young people from communities like mine that have to make tough decisions about our education.
I know I’m not the first Latina that has been forced to decide between their education and family, nor the first to make sacrifices just to attend school. Many people in the Latino community have to make these tough choices because tuition is skyrocketing and obtaining legal status in the U.S. is expensive.
The ramifications of our expensive higher education system are felt by Latino parents too. They are pressured to go beyond their financial limits to figure out how they’ll support their household, as well as support their children who want to attend college. My parents, like many immigrant parents, came to the U.S. to make a better life for our family and give me more opportunities than they had. But all their hard work and sacrifices run the risk of being stunted by the high cost of college. Making college more affordable and increasing financial support for first-generation students would help alleviate some of our challenges. As part of this process, offering FAFSA workshops and guidance on how to apply for scholarships and other opportunities could be crucial for the success of first-generation students. Also, parents of first-generation students should be part of the process and receive guidance on how to help their children navigate the costs of higher education.
Right now, Congress has a real opportunity to improve our higher education system – like reauthorizing the Higher Education Act – so it serves the current needs of all students, especially first-generation students that need extra support to get across the finish line.
Giselle Chico is based in Longmont, Colorado, where she advocates for the needs of first-generation students, immigrants, and issues impacting young people.