University of Michigan students looking for help with their finances ended up helping themselves—with a crowd-sourced book on making it through college on a budget.

Lauren Schandevel said the school’s affordability guide didn’t resonate with her and other low-income students, so they put together their own—an online guide that has since grown to over 100 pages covering a range of educational expenses including housing and food.

Schandevel, one member of a four-student panel held Wednesday at the Driving for Change convening in Detroit, said finances are a critical issue for students—as is making sure that students get the help they need at the K-12 level.

“We talk about college affordability, but there’s so many students not even getting to the door,” she said. “If you want to make higher-ed more equitable, you need to make K-12 more equitable. Invest in your communities.”

She and the other panelists, Wayne State University alumnus Johnathan Williams, Manny Cortez, a student at Lippert Manufacturing Academy in Goshen; and his daughter, Goshen College student Kelly Cortez, urged the audience of institutional leaders, policymakers and others at the convening to listen to students in crafting efforts to grow access and attainment in post-high school education and training.

“As low-income students, we know higher-ed better than anyone,” Schandevel said. “So, let us in the room. Make sure you’re working with us when you’re trying to make things better.”

Manny Cortez said policymakers at every level need to understand how today’s students are different from those of past generations.

“Just look around and see who needs help and give it to them,” he suggested. “Go into the community and find those who need help, and just do it.”

He came to Elkhart from El Salvador with an eighth-grade education and has immersed himself in community life, helping to found a low-power bilingual radio station. He remembers the day that changed his educational life.

“One day I came to my boss’s office. I was thinking I was going to get fired. Instead, they offered to further my education,” he said. “It’s never too late to learn. My apprenticeship has been the best program for me.”

His daughter, Kelly Cortez, a nursing student at Goshen College, helped her father with his English. She was inspired by the example of hard work set by her parents.

“Watching my dad go to school encouraged me to further my own education. I’m amazed that at his age he is still going to school,” she said.

Williams returned to school after 30 years, returning under a Wayne State program, Warrior Way Back, that forgave fees that he had not paid. Those unpaid fees had prevented him from completing the 11 credits he needed to graduate. He finished in December with a 4.0 average.

“What was important to me was having a great support system,” he said. “I had a good squad. I needed people to encourage me not discourage me.”

Challenges included the need to work at his job and take care of his family.

“Let’s be honest,” he said, speaking for so many of today’s students in circumstances different from the college campus experience that others remember.

“It’s very, very tough. My wife said, ‘Just take a few classes.’ So, I took four.”

He had never written a plan before, but he did now—and it helped. At commencement, the university’s president had him stand up to be recognized, and Williams grew emotional as he recalled the moment and what it meant for his family.

“When the president had me and my family stand up, that was invaluable for my 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter,” he said, tearing up.

“I’m in my 40s going back to school. It took me 30 years to get a four-year degree.”

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