For education, adults should have financial aid opportunities, too

An older student online, reviewing tests and instructional materials. (Photo: Milan Ilic, via Shutterstock)

It’s been my dream to earn my MBA and this year, I did it.

During my journey, I learned there are millions of people who don’t follow a traditional path to college after high school and want to return to school as an adult, but face too many barriers such as high costs, limited availability, and scheduling restrictions at brick-and-mortar schools.

That is why I decided to drive from my home in Perris, California to the State Capitol to share my story and ask state legislators to support a new state grant program for working adults like me, who need financial aid and the flexibility of online courses to go to school.

Between the three-hour bus commute and working to support my family, it was hard to juggle school. Yet I persevered. I worked hard and graduated in four years.

However, after taking time off work and driving 10-hours to Sacramento, I learned that due to strong opposition from private colleges, I would not get a chance to share my story on why we need legislation to end bias against students that don’t have the ability to attend expensive private institutions.

I have struggled to navigate higher education.

I’m a first-generation Latina, responsible for helping to support my brothers and sisters. After high school, I attended a private, non-profit California university that promised that I would receive free tuition. It turned out that the free tuition was only for the first year and the rest needed to be paid out of pocket. The school encouraged me to take on expensive loans to continue my education.

Like so many Californians, I took on enormous debt to earn my degree so I could build a better life for my family.

Between the three-hour bus commute and working to support my family, it was hard to juggle school. Yet I persevered. I worked hard and graduated in four years.

After graduating, I got a job even though I knew it was not the career I wanted, which required an MBA. Earning my MBA from the same university was not an option, because it would cost more than my undergraduate degree. As I researched MBA programs, I discovered Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit university that operates solely online. WGU offers a flat-rate tuition of around $7,000 for the year, lower than any California school.

With the additional flexibility of on-demand classes and a competency-based model, WGU allowed me to accelerate my studies, saving time and avoiding further debt.

I worked graveyard shifts at my job and did my coursework whenever I found spare time. When COVID hit I lost my job, my ability to pay my tuition, and was about to make the tough choice to drop out.

Fortunately, my school gave me a financial hardship scholarship. I completed my MBA in just seven months. They also paired me with a mentor to help me stay focused and confident. I remember after struggling through a particularly tough exam, my mentor called me within minutes to tell me I’d passed. This type of support was invaluable for my experience and success.

Today, to be eligible for state financial aid, California students must choose an institution with a physical presence in the state. Meanwhile, thousands of Californians like me who attend a public or non-profit online university without a physical presence are denied access to state aid — begging the question is state aid for the student or the institution?

What does a ‘physical presence’ matter if a California resident and taxpayer can pursue their degree without ever leaving their community? State financial aid should be available to any California student pursuing a degree at a fully accredited, high-quality university, regardless of whether the school has a physical campus.

I was deeply disappointed that powerful private institutions used their influence to block legislation to establish a new grant program that would create opportunity and access for the six million adults in California that want to return to college but can’t without state financial aid.

We are first-generation immigrants, we are single parents, former foster youth, we grew up in rural communities – and we deserve equitable access to state aid that will help us build our futures and realize our career dreams.

Schools like WGU change lives and trajectories allowing us to build a different and better future. I hope that our state legislators will find a way to lay an inclusive path towards adult education in our state.

Editor’s  Note: Joselyn Zaragoza is a California adult graduate and a resident of Riverside County.

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