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College Dreams, Financial Nightmares

By David B. Cohen — June 09, 2015 5 min read
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In the past year, I visited over 30 high schools in California, and on every campus, students were advised, encouraged, exhorted about the same goal: going to college. The degree of implicit or explicit messaging varied, along with the strategies and the tone used to communicate the goal. Some of the schools I visited had significant percentages of students in poverty, but in the hours that I was visiting, I was focused on what was there in front of me, happening in the classroom. In some cases I spoke briefly with teachers about where their graduates typically went after high school, in general terms.

If asked, I’d have assumed that students who couldn’t afford college would have access to financial aid and scholarships that would defray the costs. I know how naïve that sounds. I read articles or heard stories now and then about the expense of college, but had the luxury (or, call it blindness) of not having to actually confront the challenges directly.

Oddly enough, that learning really came to me when I was done with my travels around California, and found out more about what was happening in my own community. I live and teach in Palo Alto, CA, a town where most students and families have the means to pay for college, along with the experience and resources to work through the labyrinth of applications and forms that go into college admissions, financial aid packages, scholarships, housing deposits, etc.

Laura Marcus Bricca, a teacher at Palo Alto High School, has made us all more aware that over 30 graduating seniors, who are the first generation in their families admitted to college, are finding that even with financial aid, college costs are putting higher education out of reach. Rather than just lament the situation, Laura started a GoFundMe campaign.* One recent update at that page offers more useful details: I’ve reproduced it below, with permission of both Laura and Stephanie.

Dear friends, family, colleagues, community members and contributors to this campaign,

The saga continues...

We have been informed by SF State that Stephanie has not been guaranteed on-campus housing next year, and is currently on a very long waiting list. Despite being in contact with the housing office and the Associate Dean at SF State about this issue, we have been encouraged to put a back-up plan in place because they say it is unlikely that anything on campus will open up.

The university expected her to pay an $800 housing deposit, which was due long before they provided her with a financial aid award letter. Obviously, prior to the start of this campaign, she could not afford to pay this deposit. From her perspective at that time, she felt alone and unable to do anything about it. So the deadline was missed.

Here is yet one more example of how the state university system continues to create further inequity and barriers for First Gen, low-income freshman. Obviously, the system is broken, which I have kindly pointed out to the Associate Dean at SF State.

Given that Stephanie has been homeless off and on during her entire high school career, and still doesn’t have a stable living environment, it is of paramount importance that she find a safe, stable, and affordable living environment in order to be successful in college. She is currently living with her uncle in East Palo Alto, sleeping on the floor with no mattress, and doesn’t yet have her driver’s license or a car.

I am currently seeking affordable housing options near San Francisco State where Stephanie could plan to live next school year, in the event on-campus housing will not be provided. If anyone knows of any affordable housing or resources in San Francisco to assist with this next step, could you please send me a message?

Your support with this effort is greatly appreciated.

In addition, I’ve included a link to an article written by Elena Kadvany from the Palo Alto Weekly that highlights Stephanie Estrada and Alan Ugarte, another one of the 33 students at Paly who are First Generation students to attend college facing financial hardships in this process.

Below that, is a link to an article recently published in the NY Times that provides current data on graduation rates for low-income students. This article succinctly and eloquently provides the heartbreaking rationale for why Rise Together Education is needed in order for our Paly students and many others to make it through college. Our underprivileged students need every financial and academic resource to be made available to them, for their entire college career, in order to eliminate barriers and optimize academic outcomes.

Thank you again for your time and support. It truly takes a village!

Palo Alto Weekly

NY Times

Graduation represents a culmination, but also a new beginning - after all, it’s also called commencement. Many seniors walk across the stage in elation at that transition, with clear answers about their next steps, and all the support they need to commence. Other students have worked as hard - or harder - to overcome obstacles and reach this point, and they’ve done so with our constant encouragement. Collectively, we promised them that if they worked hard they would enjoy the benefits of their labor. Here in California, many of us can say that because we worked hard and attended our state’s public universities at a time when costs were manageable. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I wrote a check over $1,000 to the U.C. Regents to cover a semester’s tuition and fees. Gradually, we shifted from having the state invest in its students to forcing the students to invest in the state: tuition and fees have become the largest single source of “core operating funds” for the University of California, according to the The Daily Californian (12/22/14).

There are two silver linings here. One is that college costs are gaining attention in the media and in politics, which raises some possibility of improving the situation. The other is that there are people who want to pay it forward, taking an opportunity to support deserving students who need our help.


* The GoFundMe campaign is not affiliated with or endorsed by Education Week or its publisher. Potential donors are advised to read the Common Questions page at the site.
Photos: sign; Palo Alto High School graduation 2015; by David B. Cohen.

The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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