03/01/2012 07:05 am ET Updated May 01, 2012

College Affordability and The Latina/o Student: Some Advice

With so much policy discussion centered on the affordability of higher education, some students may be second-guessing whether attending college is right for them. In the state of Florida alone, lawmakers are considering a $200-$500 million cut in the higher education budget and allowing smaller colleges to raise tuition by 3%. A possible increase in community college tuition could be negative on the access of higher education, especially Latina/o students who are more inclined to attend these colleges because of its affordability and closeness to home.

As a former Latina college student, I understand the dilemma of the college student on a budget. I attended a university that was close to my home, but I paid most of my way to complete my degree. Luckily, I had earned a Florida scholarship that alleviated tuition constraints. However, with so much discussion centered on Pell Grant and grant-aid cuts, resources seem to be on life support for future students.

But, the student budget doesn't stop at tuition. There are many other expenses students must consider, for example, unpaid internships. With such a competitive workforce, employers are looking for graduates with a good amount of experience in their fields. However, not all students can afford to be unpaid because not all students are the same. What many individuals don't understand is the differing circumstances among white, African-American, and Hispanic students. An American Council on Education survey of students from 2003-2004 indicated that African-American and Hispanic students worked more full-time hours than other students.

As a Latina who worked through college and learned some hard financial lessons along the way, I do understand that our attendance and perceptions of college is different than other students. That is why I have compiled an advice list with the Latina/o student in mind.

Keep your college options open. Some of us have that dream school with an accompanied hefty tuition bill, but if your parents are on a tight budget and the scholarships are not adding up as much, then financing will probably be the only other option you have left. However, chances are that a great education is just minutes away from home too. And, if you are thinking of obtaining a professional degree after college, you can always invest in the dream school later. Either ways, companies tend to prefer candidates with professional degrees.

Don't take out any student loans if you don't need them. Just taking out that measly $1,000 loan offered in your financial award package can really add up later. If you absolutely need it, then always remember federal subsidized, then federal unsubsidized and then private loans as a last resort.

Never forget this five-letter word: FAFSA. Every year after your parents and yourself file tax returns, log on to and fill out the on-line application. This provides you with the opportunity to obtain federal grant aid for college, but always apply early. If your parents are shaky about providing their tax returns, then have your parents sit down with you as you review the application or have your school's guidance counselor or college advisor call them with more details.

Apply for scholarships. Take the time to ask your guidance counselor or college adviser about any scholarship opportunities. There are plenty of private scholarships sponsored by your university or other organizations that are looking for talented students; all you need to do is take the time to apply. There are resources that can help you with your scholarship search such as Fastweb.

Don't finance a car if you don't need to. If you have some cash saved up, buy a used, guaranteed car that will prevent you from accumulating monthly payments and will allow you to take you from Point A to Point B as safely as possible. You will have all the time in the world to get that dream car you have always wanted.

Don't be afraid of internships. Depending your major, there are some internships/fellowships that pay a stipend or some form of expense like housing or travel. Ask college advisers within your major or the Career Services office about any opportunities they can connect you with. Also, some Latino/organizations provide undergraduate and graduate students with paid internship opportunities.

Don't buy it if you don't need it. Create an entertainment budget for the week or take advantage of free events offered by your community or institution. Try to get involved with a club on-campus or participate in community service activities in your spare time.

Don't take out credit cards just because they approve you. As a student you will probably only be approved for a small credit limit amount. In order to avoid debt and start building your credit, ask your parents if they can place you as an authorized user on their account. You're more likely not to spend anything on it and you're covered in case of an emergency.

Find employment on-campus. Most institutions have a Human Resources website where you can apply for part-time or student work. If you work on-campus, not only do you save gas money, but work times tend to be more flexible with your school schedule. Also, the FAFSA provides you with an option to choose federal work-study as part of your aid. Federal work-study provides part-time work to students who need to pay their tuition and expenses.