It got me thinking, “What if my friends from home would have been able to reach this point of access and opportunity? How would their lives be different?”
To me, college wasn’t just about academic opportunity, it was an opportunity to access a world that just simply wasn’t available to me in my small rural California farm town. It was accessing this cultural capital that I had gotten a sense of in the books I had read and the movies I had watched, but had never really seen up close and in-person. It was this startling realization of my own obliviousness to a culture of power and stratification of class that made me realize that educational inequity and the lack of educational opportunities are directly tied to a lack of socio-economic opportunity and access to that ladder of social mobility that we reference so often when we talk about the American Dream.
It was this realization that pushed me to start my non-profit, HYPE, as a young teacher in Los Angeles. I wanted to put my students, all of them low-income, many of them facing incredible adversity, in a position where they had access to the most exceptional life-changing, educational opportunities that I had. I wanted them to be able to change their individual life trajectories and the life trajectories of their family and loved ones around them. I wanted them to have that startling realization that they now had access to resources and a culture of power that they didn’t even know they lacked. I wanted them to be incensed about the lack of those opportunities available to their friends and their families back home. I wanted them to join me in the struggle for social justice around educational equity and opportunity.
Through my non-profit work, I have seen many of my former students go on to college and relive similar experiences as my own. My students have gone to, and graduated from some of the best schools in this country.
But, I’m writing this today because as I have evolved as an educator and an individual, my theory on educational opportunity, and how to achieve it, has changed.
The profound contrast between my high school and college experiences initially led me to focus intently on exactly that difference as a young teacher. Years back, I would tell my students, “Go to the best school you can get into. If you have to take out loans, do it. The experience, the prestige of your diploma, the cultural capital you gain, makes it worth it.”
I can tell you now, with complete certainty, I was wrong. I care about college affordability because I have a witnessed a change in my own thinking as the harsh realities of student loan debt have created barriers to the social mobility I’ve dreamed about for my students.
The price of college has sky-rocketed. From 2005-2010, college tuition increased 20%. 44 million Americans have student loan debt which now surpassed credit card and auto loan debt.As an educator, I cannot in good conscious look my students in the eye today and tell them that they need to invest aggressively in their education while knowing this means being saddled with crippling student loan debt for the rest of their lives.
I know this well. I myself have over $170,000 in student loan debt. On a policy level, we cannot allow this to be the norm for young Americans going forward. As post-secondary education becomes essential in our evolving job market, we absolutely need a pathway to free college options, especially for low-income students. We need to change the norm.
But until we dramatically change this reality on a policy level, what does all this mean, when we talk about college affordability today?
I started my non-profit to provide educational opportunity to the students I serve, by any means necessary. We take college affordability seriously, and we have some tips for anyone trying to navigate the college process with the least amount of loan debt as possible. Check them out below:
Look into No Loan Schools: These are schools that do not include or have very limited loans in their financial aid packages. They have made a commitment to replace loans with grants and work-study programs for all students regardless of family income or state residency. A list of some of them are here.
Don’t Get Fooled By the Sticker: So often students get enamored with a school that many people know about. We joke that they want to go to a school for the bumper sticker they can put on their car. Don’t get sucked into this thinking. There are so many amazing small liberal arts colleges, with large endowments, waiting to provide aid for a student like you. Check out a list of some of these schools here.
Be Prepared for the Long and Windy Financial Aid Road: It’s never to early to start thinking about financial aid. Start by collecting all your tax forms and savings account info. The FAFSA used to be available the January before the targeted school year. You can now start it on October 1st. Start as early as possible and regardless of what you think your chances are of getting aid. Let them tell you ‘no’.
Undocumented? Look for schools that meet 100% aid for DACA students. You can find a few of those schools here.