I am blessed. Blessed to be here writing this article. To go to this University. To get an education. I’m blessed that I grew up in a household where going to college was not only a priority, but also a financially viable option — an option I actually had the means and resources to pursue.

Last Tuesday, the Coalition for Tuition Equality held a forum. Being unfamiliar with the CTE, I thought I’d check it out, and I left amazed at what I heard and what I learned.

The CTE is behind a push to have the University charge undocumented students who are Michigan residents in-state tuition. For many, college is already expensive, and having to pay out-of-state tuition only makes it further out of reach.

What impacted me the most from the forum was how prevalent inaccessibility to college was and what it truly meant. Beyond the statistics and rhetorical political speeches surrounding higher education is the reality of not being able to attend college. It seems obvious, but what it means to not be able to go to college finally hit me.

We all grow up dreaming of what we want to be when we’re older — whether it’s a doctor, a teacher or an astronaut. From then on, everything we do, in some way, works toward that dream. We go to school and work hard so we can go to college. We go to college so we can get jobs. In today’s economy and job market, not having a college degree means not being able to fulfill those childhood dreams. It means not having a career or a final goal to work towards. It means not being able to dream.

And it’s not just undocumented immigrants that are struggling. While they are at the forefront of this issue, college accessibility is important to a wide group of individuals. It affects the veteran from Michigan, who because of his overseas service is now forced to pay out-of-state tuition, though he grew up in the state. It affects the child of an immigrant here on a work visa — fully documented — who has lived here all of his or her life, but because he or she doesn’t have a green card, the child still pays out-of-state tuition. It affects those from low-income backgrounds who, even though they’re in-state, can’t afford the rising costs of tuition.

Many will argue that there are scholarships, federal programs and financial aid in place to take care of cases like this. But, it’s nowhere near enough. College costs are so high that the current national average for one year of study at a public university is $16,410. For private colleges, this number is more than doubled, reaching $37,000. And the effects of this are showing. Studies show that only 10 percent of freshmen entering high school go straight to college and graduate with a degree before the age of 24. The Brookings Institution found that 79 percent of students in the highest income bracket go to college, while only 34 percent in the lowest income bracket attend. The divide is growing, and it’s growing purely along economic and financial lines.

With the unemployment rate almost twice as high among those without a college degree, it’s easy to conclude that college is essential in order to get a job. Without college, students not only lose the possibility of getting an education, but they also lose the prospects of having a sustainable career. The economic environment today dictates that without a college degree, it’s nearly impossible to have a solid future.

And the problem is that if kids don’t have a future to look forward to, they will soon lose motivation to perform. What’s the point of working tirelessly throughout middle school and high school if there is no reward or point to your effort? In a culture in which so much of what students do is geared toward getting into college, not having this option takes away motivation to work.

In the discussion following the CTE panel, LSA freshman Xochitl Calix-Ulloa, brought up a good point. She came from a high school where many students were undocumented, and she reiterated that going back, she has found that many of the older kids are apathetic to school. Not because they’re stupid or lazy, but because they have no option beyond high school anyway, and thus, no reason to work toward anything.

The more inaccessible college becomes, the more it validates this mindset and apathy in students. What is the point of working hard in school when you know that your fate has been decided for you, when you know that you won’t be able to go anywhere after you earn your diploma? College is a way to fulfill your career goals and dreams. Taking away that resource, for many, takes away the ability to work toward those goals. And that is where the true failure of our public education system lies.

College accessibility isn’t just about finding a way for kids to go to college. Every conversation about improving K-12 student achievement, about decreasing unemployment rates, about income inequality and improving low-income quality of life begins with college accessibility. America is a nation of dreamers — after all, the staple of success here is achieving the American Dream. When our social and political structure is set up in a way that snatches this very dream from children, it’s needless to say that something isn’t being done right.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @harshanahata.

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