Opening the doors to our colleges and universities

“In America today, college is available to everyone prepared to move forward in life,” Dr. Claudio Prieto, then Assistant U.S. Education Secretary, once observed. “For minorities like us, there are still barriers to obtaining an education, but with hard work, those barriers are manageable….”

Most of us would agree. Yet, for Americans of color, acknowledging that educational opportunity is now far greater than in our past is not the same as concluding that the very real barriers to a better life can be “managed” easily.

Among the most difficult of our remaining challenges is finding ways to pay for the education that will transform our lives.

As a society, our future prosperity and national security depend upon properly educating all Americans who are willing to learn. Helping those who are determined to improve themselves through higher education must rank among our foremost priorities.

In this Information Age, it should surprise none of us that the average annual earnings for an individual with a college degree are 60 percent higher than are earnings for those whose education ended with high school.

Yet, despite the clear benefits of obtaining a college education, far too many Americans are trapped outside the university gates, looking in.

I am honored to serve on the Board of Regents of Morgan State University where we are doing all that we can to make a Morgan State education affordable. Yet, despite our best efforts, some students must leave school before obtaining their degrees because they no longer can afford the cost.

In my work, both in Washington and here in the Baltimore region, these are tragedies that I am determined to eliminate.

The Congressional Research Service observes that the published annual costs for tuition, fees, room and board at public four-year institutions average roughly $17,000 for in-state students – and often twice that staggering amount at private not-for-profit four-year institutions.

Few of us have the financial resources to pay, out-of-pocket, the staggering “sticker price” of a college education. As a result, college students typically must rely upon a combination of grants and student loans to balance the books.

Fortunately, federal assistance, approved by the Congress under the Higher Education Act, is available to help college students pay their bills.

Each school year, the U.S. Department of Education provides approximately $150 billion in grants and loans to more than 14 million college students. This help flows to nearly 60 percent of all the students who are studying to complete their undergraduate degrees.

I strongly support this federal investment in the future of our people.

For example, this year, I have authored and introduced H.R. 3446, the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2013, which would simplify and reform the complicated process for students to apply for federal student financial aid when they no longer have contact with their parents.

Moreover, I have long understood that there are many other obstacles to prospective college students receiving the financial aid that they need and deserve.

For too many, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college, a prominent barrier is often lack of information.

They do not realize all of the help that is available to help them afford their tuition, fees and other college costs. Many do not know how to go about applying and qualifying for this aid.

This is the critically important information many students and parents have received in the free seminars that our congressional office has organized each year since I first entered the Congress.

Please mark your calendars for the 17th Annual “How to Pay for College” seminar on Dec. 9 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street in Baltimore.

Our free event will include one-stop shopping as representatives from 29 different community and state colleges, public and private universities and scholarship organizations work to inform students and their parents about post-secondary programs and financial aid programs.

Then, during the one-hour program portion of our event, I will be joined by noted experts who will share their knowledge about federal and state financial aid benefits, private scholarships, SAT preparation, the college admissions process and the value of our community colleges.

Participants will hear from experts provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the Central Scholarship, the College Board, Morgan State University and Howard Community College.

As taxpayers, we are helping to fund the $150 billion in federal student aid that our government provides to students each year. We each must assure that every local student who needs this help takes the steps necessary to apply and qualify.

For all of us, young and older alike, higher education is the door to opportunity. We need only to help each other open that door.

Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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Opening the doors to our colleges and universities


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