During my more than six decades of life, I have witnessed the struggle to afford a college education from every vantage point. The core lesson of that experience is clear. When we educate our young people, we grow and prosper as a community — while those that fail to do so fall behind.

Most Americans now understand the monetary value of a college degree. Annual earnings for Americans with bachelor’s degrees are about 60 percent higher than earnings for those with a high school diploma. Over a lifetime, that earnings gap can exceed $1,000,000.

What we are now learning in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is that advanced education may also determine whether we can hold on to our jobs — or be selected for that better job that can improve our lives.

Recently, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed that the U.S. rate of unemployment is not the same for all groups in our society. The 2010 jobless rate for those of us with at least a bachelor’s degree was 5.4 percent or less — while 10.3 percent of those of us with only a high school diploma were jobless.

When a large number of our neighbors cannot find work, support their families or buy our services or products, our entire community is in economic trouble. This is why, parents or not, we all have an interest in helping our college students finish school.
Today, both my work in the Congress and my volunteer position on the Morgan State Board of Regents help to keep the public policy struggles about how best to educate America at the forefront of my priorities.

I can still remember my own college years when I gave thanks every day for my scholarship — and eagerly awaited those letters from home that might well contain a crumpled $5 bill. Years later I would join the ranks of American parents taking the plunge into debt in order to help my oldest daughter obtain the college education that would transform her life.

Both personal experience and good public policy have led me to join President Obama in fighting to expand the Pell Grant Program, the major federal initiative designed to assure that college is not out of reach for deserving students of modest economic means.

In 2009, we were successful in increasing the maximum Pell grant award to $5,550 through a provision in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. Although $5,550 may not cover the entire cost of a college education, it can make a tremendous difference in a student’s life.

Then, in the Budget Control Act of 2011, we succeeded in including $10 billion for fiscal year 2012 Pell Grant awards.

I am deeply gratified by this progress. However, all of us should remain concerned about the threat of future cuts in federal college aid funding.

For example, on April 5 of this year, Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for 2012 called for a reduction in Pell grant awards to their pre-stimulus levels — a $650 cut to the maximum award.

I believe that this effort is misguided, and if implemented, could negatively impact the 9.4 million students who now benefit from the Pell program.

That is why I plan to oppose any cuts to the Pell Grants that are helping our students pay for college. I also realize, however, that too many prospective students and their families do not know about the help that they now can receive through publicly funded financial aid.

I have sponsored my free, annual “How to Pay for College” seminars every year since I was first elected to the Congress in 1996. This year’s 15th annual seminar will take place, 5 to 8 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Central Branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St.

During this free event — open to the public — experts will cover the college application process, discuss how to fill out the federal financial aid application, and provide guidance on how to successfully obtain a wide range of scholarships and low-interest loans.

In addition to knowledgeable advice from financial aid experts, more than 30 colleges and financial aid organizations will be on hand to share their wisdom about the college application process and the scholarship assistance that is available.

For more information, those who are interested can call our Baltimore Office 410-685-9199.

I am hoping for another large turnout on Oct. 17. Both as individuals and as a community, we gain by investing in the power of our minds.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.