Congratulations! But Now What? A Lack of Financial Aid

It is becoming increasingly difficult to gain admittance to many California colleges and universities. But for many students who earned the golden ticket, a key question is arising: can they even afford to attend?

Numerous higher education institutions, public and private, are lacking the pool of aid they once had to provide to their admitted students. Even student loans, including once better-bet, lower-interest rate federal programs as Stafford, are numerous percentage points higher than home equity lines of credit. Stafford, which allows students to borrow a maximum of $25,000 per year, carries an interest rate of nearly 7 percent, whereas the Parent Plus is at 8.5 percent.

In a recent article, the New York Times profiles a California high school student who’s been newly admitted to UC Berkeley. Yet like many of his peers in the current economic climate, his family is in tough financial straits: his laid-off father continues to hunt for jobs, while his mother brings home adequate wages from a teaching position.

With a combined parental income of $58,000, one would think this student would qualify for slightly more than the $218 in scholarship money he received from the university. Maybe in the past, but now it appears that schools’ scarce resources are being spent on the most needy students– leaving the middle-class in a mad-dash to acquire funding.

In spite of a 10 percent tuition increase system wide, and a 7 percent rise in tuition costs for the past few years, the 10-campus system has come up short in the financial assistance it can provide to its students.

Some, such as the Berkeley student’s younger sister, feel their so-called safety net is to “gain admission to a wealthy, highly selective public college hat, unlike the California system, might pay [their] tuition in full.”

Yes, some universities such as Stanford–falling in line with many of the East Coast Ivys–will grant full tuition to students with families with incomes of less than $60,000. But other well-endowed, selective California institutions are not quite as generous to its prospective students.

As a Los Angeles Times story points out, schools such as the private University of Southern California are only granting full scholarships to the top of the top applicants. With a $212,000 out-of-pocket cost for four years of admission, even upper-middle class students are left in the dirt, finding they can no longer borrow their way out of the situation. Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA) applications increased by 20 percent–or 8.5 million more than the previous year. As students are receiving less in loans–the upper-middle class USC admit the LA Times profiled received a measly $5,000 a year–USC is seeing a 10 to 15 percent increase in students requested financial aid, the article said.

Is there a solution? Maybe for resourceful, and lucky, students who successful track down both need and merit-based scholarships devoted to sending them to college, or into the post-high school training they desire. Popular scholarship search engines such as Fastweb are bound to see an increase in funding seekers.

Community colleges, which have a $20-a-unit cost, are by far the cheapest way to go. Yet the students–especially in the midst of $340 in deferred payments from the state and a 10 percent increase in applications–face not getting the classes they need to later transfer or even gain their Associates degree of choice.

The federal stimulus package carries provisions that fall in line with President Obama’s College Affordability Plan. The American Opportunity Tax Credit will guarantee that the first $4,000 of college–about half the cost of in-state tuition for UC students– is free for students. He also plans to eliminate the FAFSA, replacing it with a form to predict financial need long before one pieces together their college application, and increase the Pell Grant to $5,400 over the next few years.

Yet despite future plans, and a not-insignificant cost-reduction of $4,000, most students entering college this year will be waging an uphill battle. And, unlike in previous years, it will be less focused on passing Physics, figuring out a major and balancing schoolwork and play than getting to experience these things in the first place.

Rachel Stern, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz and a Bay Area-based freelance writer, is currently trying to scrap together the funds to attend another financial hurdle: graduate school.