Tuition Costs Shouldn’t Leave Students Sick Or Hungry
By Joseline Garcia, President of the United States Student Association
My college experience wasn’t like what you see in the movies.
To put myself through school at UC Santa Barbara, I worked the night shifts at In & Out. My parents work hard, but their income from gardening and housekeeping just wasn’t enough to support me, too.
I was taking a full course load and sleeping 3-4 hours a night in order to balance everything.
So to stay on budget, instant noodles became my diet. The result of functioning on minimal sleep (due to class, long hours at work, my involvements in student activism) and high cholesterol preservative food ended in an expensive ER visit. It made me question why anyone would compromise their physical and mental health for an education.
In high school, low-income students are able to receive free and reduced lunch. Once they step into college, students are expected to put food in their stomach despite their family’s unchanged financial situation. Maybe that explains why one in three community college students experience food insecurity.
How can students focus on classes and internships when their stomachs are grumbling?
That is why I serve as a member of the College Promise Campaign National Advisory Board representing the voices and concerns of students. The College Promise Campaign advocates for free community college giving underrepresented students access to higher education without taking on unmanageable debt. Food insecurity, counseling services, and other education expenses are brought up in board meetings to design promise programs to better serve marginalized students. At the seat of the National Advisory Board, I collaborate with education, business, philanthropy, labor union, and non-profit leaders to evaluate the success of college promise programs and creatively strategize best practices that benefit multiple sectors in society.
And students need to be at the forefront of the free community college movement. College Promise programs are designed to help students, which is why student voices are vital. Struggles like being the first in the family to go to college with little to no network and resources, the emotional, physical, and mental hurdles of being a woman of color, and the dilemma of paying for food or tuition should be the conversation at the decision-making table. Change happens when we amplify our voices together. I have seen how grassroots movements push for changes at an institutional level: while I was a student at UCSB, we advocated through student organizing to create a Central America Department and major.
Free community college is one way to make education accessible to the most marginalized members of society. Education is a tool for them to obtain social mobility. My parents are Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants who work for a minimum wage that barely sustains themselves and know nothing about higher education. I witnessed how my parents’ Latino identity and lack of education hinder their life opportunities. And I wanted to ensure I was honoring the sacrifices my parents and ancestors had made. So I wasn’t just going to school—I carried the weight of being the first in my family to go to college so that my younger brothers know it is possible. I worked with community and national organizations such as the United States Student Association and served in student government at UCSB as Student Advocate General to uplift the community that allowed me to thrive.
But if low-income, and Black and Brown students cannot attain higher education because of finances, the system is setting them up for failure. We tell students they should go to college but they can’t afford it. Low-income students are stuck in the cycle of poverty because the one tool that could help them is inaccessible.
Any student who has the motivation to achieve an education should be able to do it, without taking out unmanageable loans and compromising their physical and mental health. Education is the smartest investment for America’s future. We need students educated and free community college is one solution. When tuition is free, it allows flexibility for students to address other barriers, such as food, housing, transportation, childcare, and textbook expenses.
My story isn’t unique; it is shared by many first generation college students who struggle to make ends meet. But we can help them by alleviating the financial burden of college tuition. Sixteen states and 200 local communities have already started Promise programs that provide free community college to eligible students. The movement is growing and we need your support to spread Promise programs to your community.