As presidential candidates roll out proposals to make college affordable, higher education is taking center stage in the Democratic primary. Higher education should be accessible to everyone, and there are many promising ideas to make that a reality for students at four-year schools.

Those plans may or may not succeed in the short term. But meanwhile, there’s a real chance for Congress to start working on making two-year community college and trade school free for all Americans.

Community colleges, which are often unfairly disparaged, can be a crucial stepping stone to a college degree for many young people. I’m living proof.

I began my academic career at Austin Community College (ACC), an experience that transformed me from an academically struggling student to a successful scholar. In the process, I saved thousands of dollars, and I finally got into my dream school: the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

In fact, one-fourth of students who begin at a community college go on to a four-year school — and well more than half of those students earn their bachelor’s degree. The per-credit cost is much less than a four-year school, which means less debt and a better financial position after college.

In high school, I assumed everything would fall into place without much effort. During my senior year in high school, when all my friends were getting accepted into colleges and I wasn’t, I realized I’d been mistaken.

I was set to graduate with a horrible GPA and class rank. Not wanting to be left out, I applied to several state colleges, but I wasn’t accepted anywhere. Feeling crushed, defeated, and stupid, I decided to enroll at ACC in the fall and start anew.

My time at community college was life-changing. I was surrounded by amazing people, including students my age who were balancing full-time jobs and providing both for themselves and their families. I found the support network that helped me achieve my dream of attending a four-year university.

Since day one at ACC, I promised myself I would get into UT. I took full advantage of ACC’s resources, like scheduling time with advisers who helped me tailor my courses to meet UT’s criteria. I made sure I attended office hours, asked for clarification on assignments, and continued to work hard toward my goals.

Meanwhile, the ACC faculty was consistently supportive and pushed me to grow and become a better student. Thanks to their support, I taught myself discipline, diligence, and hard work.

By spring 2017, I had a 4.0 GPA, several leadership positions, and a stronger work ethic. I applied to UT for the spring and summer 2017 semesters but got rejected both times. Still, one thing was clear to me — ACC had transformed me into a better student, and I felt qualified to attend UT.

I decided to try one last time, and it worked — I was accepted for the fall of 2017. That would not have been possible without my time in community college.

My experience has shown me that hard work, perseverance, and a strong support system at school can lead to a successful educational experience. Community colleges are an essential stepping stone toward achieving success in higher education and should be accessible to every student.

Our elected officials have a responsibility to ensure their constituents have access to resources that help them better their lives. Providing free community college is one of the best ways to accomplish that. I hope that soon everyone will have the same opportunity I did.

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Pablo Pratt is a senior at The University of Texas at Austin studying International Relations & Global Studies and Government. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.