Attending college was never a maybe for me. It was always a certain step I knew I was required to take if I wanted to have a stable job in the future and, more importantly, achieve financial stability.
Growing up, I saw how my mom remained in stable jobs throughout her career while my dad bounced around jobs and never stayed too long at any one job. They both went to college, but she earned a master’s degree and he got an associate’s degree. My parents’ stark experiences in the job market made one thing clear: advanced education is necessary to be financially secure and have a stable job in our economy.
Once I got into Colorado University at Denver, I had to figure out how I was going to pay for it. I explored several options to help with the cost of school, but little was available to me. FAFSA determined that my expected family contribution (EFC) was high enough that I did not qualify for federal or state grants. My EFC did not take into account whether my parents were actually going to support my educational aspirations.
Unfortunately, without my parents’ financial support or grants to defray the costs of college, that left me no other choice than to take out student loans and work two part-time jobs to make sure I could continue my education.
Throughout the semesters, I have worked as a nanny and completed my fair share of on-campus jobs. It hasn’t been easy navigating college while also juggling two jobs, and even three jobs some semesters, but it’s the only way I will be able to finish my degree in public health and keep me on track to become a doctor.
With my resolve to make college work, I have often sacrificed sleep to meet the demands of school and my jobs. I also use breaks between my jobs to study or do homework. Sometimes, I’m getting home at 10 p.m. and having to start work at 6 a.m. the next day so I have to capitalize on the free time I have to study. These are just a few of the sacrifices that students like me who don’t have much financial support have to make just to attend school.
Frankly, it’s not a sustainable strategy. It causes a lot of stress, can be physically taxing, and lead to mental health issues. I’ve personally experienced a fair share of burn out and physical illness as a result of this lifestyle. That’s why it’s time for our members of Congress to work on addressing the staggering issues in our current higher education system and modernize higher education policies to meet the needs of today’s students.
Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act should be the first major and immediate step in addressing our higher education problems. It’s truly shocking to realize that such a consequential piece of legislation has not been reauthorized in more than 11 years. With our national student debt rapidly increasing, now more than $1.6 trillion, and in-state tuition for a 4-year public college having increased by 41% since 2008, there is an urgency for Congress to take action now.
For me, not having to worry about how I’m going to pay for college on a weekly basis would be liberating. Right now, I budget weekly and when an unexpected college-related expense occurs, like needing an access code for a test, that disrupts my entire weekly budget, which could mean less money for groceries that week.
Trying to make college work without much financial support is a daunting task. I’ve had to pass over several unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities that would help me gain experience in my field just because I need to work in order to stay in school.
It should be in the best interest of Congress to have an educated workforce ready to tackle the many challenges of an ever-changing and unpredictable 21st-century job market, but we can’t do that if we’re stuck between trying to figure out if we should pay for tuition or groceries.
Chelsea Montoya is a current undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Public Health at the University of Colorado – Denver with hopes to continue her education and receive an MD