Financial aid gives everyone a chance at college education

‘Education is the door to your success” is what a teacher told me in elementary school.

That, along with my life and family circumstances, triggered a desire in me to succeed in school and go on to higher education. I remember saying to myself in the fourth grade, “I need to get good grades so I can go to college.” But where would the money come from?

I knew college was expensive. I had heard about financial aid – but only from a distance, because no one else in my family or my close-knit community had gone to college. I did not have a parent, sibling or close friend to shepherd me through the process.

What I did know is that there were plenty of students in debt because of school loans and that in some cases the debt amounted to many thousands of dollars. I couldn’t pay that, nor could my parents.

Being very young, female and Latino, having parents who lacked the financial means, and knowing I would be a first-generation student, I knew I had to look for breaks that would help me.

I learned about the Running Start program while I was a sophomore in high school. Later, I learned that the financial aid paperwork, FAFSA, wasn’t a scary thing at all. I learned that there was a tremendous amount of aid available, such as the Pell and state need grants, and that the government was willing to help out a great deal – making it possible for me to get into college.

I am now attending the University of Washington Tacoma. Today I wonder whether receiving a higher education would have been possible without financial help and what the future looks like for others like me.

Financial aid is a good investment for both the individual and society. A college education is the clearest pathway into the middle class. A better educated work force strengthens the economy and yields more tax revenues for the benefit of everyone.

President Barack Obama and the divided Congress have approved a small, but notable increase to the Pell Grant for the 2013-14 school year. An $85 increase may not seem like much, but it offers hope that cuts will be avoided. It’s a signal to potential first-generation, low-income students – such as myself – that they can dream of attending college because the necessary aid will still be there.

The state need grant helps the state’s lowest-income undergraduates pursue higher education and desired careers without a great financial struggle.

The grants range from about $1,400 to $10,870, depending on the student. For some, this covers the majority of tuition costs of a four-year university. Also, beginning this year, a new financial aid shopping sheet provides a list of comparative costs, aid and outcomes that hundreds of colleges pledge to the students they admit.

This lets students look for the college most suitable for their financial circumstances; it gives a ballpark number of how much their education will cost and the debt they’re going to incur.

All this assistance gives students hope for a better life than what their parents had. In return, it benefits society as a whole. Students and the public both win. I won, too.

Sonia Rodriguez of Auburn is a junior at the University of Washington Tacoma majoring in communications.