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Opinion | My Students Need to Know College is Financially Attainable

Even though it’s only the first month of school, I’m already thinking about how I can support my new students in reaching their post-secondary education goals. Michigan State Senators like Sen. Darrin Camilleri, who just introduced a bill to promote universal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion, are also focused on helping my students access college. As a high school English teacher, I see firsthand the challenges students from low-income backgrounds face when applying to college. I’ve also seen how supports like college counselors and transparent information about how to access financial aid can help students reach their dreams.

Kristin Rathje
Kristin Rathje is a senior English teacher at Detroit Leadership Academy, in Detroit. She is a member of the Michigan Teacher Leadership Collaborative, a highly selective program for equity-minded educators co-convened by The Education Trust-Midwest and Teach Plus.

In my class last year, Layla (name changed to protect her privacy), along with my other students, completed a career inventory. Passionate about the environment, Layla explored majors and university programs that could prepare her for careers in environmental health. She completed a college comparison chart, with details such as locations and enrollment numbers at colleges she was considering, majors offered, and, finally, tuition. I watched her face fall as she realized that the in-state tuition at the public university of her choice was $14,000 per year. It might as well have been 14 million. Layla’s family couldn’t pay the tuition. How would she ever be able to afford the education she needed for her dream job?

Layla’s college access counselors from the Michigan State University College Advising Corps encouraged her to fill out the FAFSA and let her know that she qualified for not only the Michigan Achievement Scholarship ($5,500/year) and the Michigan Tuition Grant ($3,000/year), but also Michigan Tuition Incentive Program (TIP), which would cover the full cost of her tuition for up to 80 credits of her undergraduate degree. She also qualified for The Detroit Promise, a last dollar scholarship which would ensure that she wouldn’t pay anything out of pocket for tuition. The college counselors at our school assured Layla that her cost of attending college will be zero.

Students like Layla face multiple barriers to FAFSA completion — their parents may not have filed their taxes or do not want to release their financial information, or they simply don’t understand the FAFSA process because they themselves never went to college. Because of this, many simply do not complete a FAFSA with the result that much of the allocated state aid goes unused each year, including an average of about $9 million for TIP and Michigan Tuition Grant programs, according to an analysis by The Institute for College Access and Success.

Knowing that college is financially attainable is important for students, especially students from low-income backgrounds, both at the point of submitting applications, so that they know it’s worthwhile to apply and college is a realistic option, and at the point of acceptance into programs, so they can feel assured in making this investment in their education. This is why Sen. Camilleri’s bill is so important.

While FAFSA accessibility is one issue, award transparency is another. When Layla read the award letter from the university, it had no mention of the assistance provided by the State of Michigan. Instead of a zero, Layla saw the cost of thousands of dollars a year. Devastated, she ran to the college access counselors’ office. Although they assured her that the money would be there and they would help her navigate the information gap, Layla was scared. Eventually, like so many others, she abandoned her college dream, overwhelmed by her perception of the cost. 

To support our students, we must do three things. First, the Michigan State Legislature should approve Michigan State Sen. Darrin Camilleri’s proposal to promote universal FAFSA completion. Second, legislators should increase funding for additional college access counselors who can help remove barriers that stand between first-generation college students and their post-secondary dreams. Third, since the funds for grants like TIP, the Michigan Tuition Grant, and the Michigan Competitive Scholarship are allocated in the budget and ready to access, our legislators should require all Michigan post-secondary institutions to list these programs on college award letters. This way, Layla and others like her know that college is affordable and attainable. 

She and all my students deserve nothing less.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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