Most Americans are aware that, in the 21st Century, education is an essential key to financial success. By supplementing a high school diploma with a college degree, our people can add $15,000-$20,000 per year to their lifetime earnings – enough to move a family from subsistence to the middle class.

In social terms, moreover, assuring universal educational opportunity is critical to our continued freedom as a people. After centuries of struggle, what our children know can finally determine the course of their lives more dramatically than whom they know.

Yet, whether all of our people actually benefit from this advance in our humanity and technology depends upon us.

Elijah Cummings

Although access to college is no longer restricted to a select few (or only to young people, for that matter), paying for educational opportunity remains a challenge for most American families.

I know this from the experience of my own life.

Like so many others in our community, the power of a good education moved me forward on the road to a measure of success.  Yet, I also know that I could never have completed my own journey without the support of financial aid.

This is why, each year, my congressional staff and I host a free evening seminar that brings together financial aid experts, college representatives and our community to learn how to pay for college while accumulating as little debt as possible.

We will be hosting our 21st free, annual “How to Pay for College” session on Dec. 4, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Maryland Institute College of Art Brown Center, 1301 West Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore.

I mention this date because I hope that each person reading this message will encourage everyone they know to attend our free seminar and be empowered to begin their own journey to success.

We all have been taught that “the truth shall make you free.” Here is a brief introduction to some of the truth about higher education in America that should encourage you and those you know to participate in our Dec. 4 seminar.

During the last two decades, more than 10,000 of our neighbors who have attended our free financial aid seminars have been taught about the college aid that is available to all of us – a realization that is one of my greatest satisfactions in life.

Their success stories are living proof of the financial benefits of advanced education.

Annual earnings for Americans with bachelor’s degrees are about 60 percent higher than the incomes of those with a high school diploma – and, over a lifetime, those additional earnings can exceed $1,000,000.

Although advanced education is a critical investment in our future, we also realize that very few American families can afford to send themselves or their children to college or technical training without receiving some help.

This is why, each year, approximately 13 million Americans take advantage of the federal financial aid programs that Maryland’s congressional delegation has fought to sustain and expand.

The core help, called Pell Grants, are based upon each person’s financial need.  The application for these federal education grants is also free, but it must be completed to receive this help.

The FAFSA application process is the critical first step toward receiving a share of the more than $120 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funding that are available.  We have worked to make that application process as manageable as possible – as participants will learn at our Dec. 4 seminar .

This federal financial assistance, as well as additional student aid from state and non-profit sources, is especially important in an era when the cost of advanced education has been increasing. Covering these costs is one of our greatest educational challenges.

I have the honor of serving on the Board of Regents of Morgan State University, where we were able to limit tuition and fees for the Fall 2017 semester to $3,884 for Maryland residents.  Although these costs at Morgan State are relatively affordable, compared to other universities, they are beyond the ability of far too many deserving families.

Despite our best efforts, we continue to witness some students leaving school before obtaining their degrees because they no longer can afford the cost.  Each of these departures is a tragedy, both personally and for our community, a tragedy that we all should be doing everything in our power to avoid.

This is another reason why we will be bringing together federal and state financial aid experts to share their knowledge about the assistance that is available to students from our community – as well as their advice about how best to qualify – at our seminar on December 4.

These experts will be joined by representatives from 29 colleges and universities and scholarship organizations, who will educate us about all that their schools have to offer and their admission process.

Young and young-at-heart alike, I hope that you will join us at Maryland Institute College of Art on Dec. 4.  The road to success should be open and available to us all.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.