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New London - About 10 high school seniors in the middle of the college application process spoke with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, at Higher Edge on Thursday about their paths to college and how they plan to pay for their educations.
"Education is the great equalizer. There is no question that higher education is almost mandatory if you want to be able to compete and succeed in a competitive workforce," Courtney said. "But it is not just an automatic process, you really have to think through your choices and your decisions."
Higher Edge, a nonprofit organization founded by Chris Soto three years ago, strives to do just that. The organization works with high school juniors and seniors from low-income households, and those who will be the first in their families to attend college, and helps guide them through the process of choosing a college, applying for admission and securing financial aid, all free of charge to the student.
The program serves students who attend New London High School and New London residents who attend Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School.
"I feel that I wouldn't be going to college without this program and if I didn't have the help to guide me through the process," Naje Ramos, a 17-year-old senior at Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School, told Courtney. "They bettered my future for me."
Courtney also stressed to the students the importance of having a financial plan to help pay for college. Just managing debt after leaving college is not enough, he said.
"The student loan debt levels people are starting to carry is now greater than credit card debt, greater than car loan debt," he said. "On balance, it is still a great investment. But again, you really have to make smart choices when you're going through this process."
Many of the students Courtney spoke to said they are considering the University of Connecticut, where annual costs for state residents are approximately $23,744, including room and board.
Courtney, a former member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, helped pass the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, which cut interest rates for the Stafford student loan program and bolstered the Pell Grant program. Last summer, he supported a bill that prevented interest rates on federal student loans from doubling from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
"At some point, we need to look at the issue not just on the back end, after students have left college," Courtney said. "We need to start focusing on the decision-making on the front end."
Students and parents, if given more information about a school's affordability, could make better decisions about financing a college education, he said.
This school year alone, Higher Edge has helped high school seniors complete and submit more than 230 college applications. Many of the students have already been accepted to college, Soto said.
But the mission of Higher Edge is greater than just helping students get into college; the organization strives to see its students through to degree completion and graduation.
"Completion is as important as admission," Courtney reminded the students. "It's not just about getting in, it's about getting across the finish line."