Financing education an enduring difficulty for some minorities

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Daniel Villasenor thought he had saved enough money to pay for college.

He thought wrong.

In August, the 19-year-old showed up at Los Angeles Valley College to pay for classes and additional fees for the upcoming fall semester.

“I thought it was going to be around $360,” Villasenor said.

Instead, he owed $490.

Villasenor was stunned. He didn’t know the California Legislature had raised tuition fees again, this time by 44 percent, from $18 to $26 per unit. It was another setback for Villasenor, who had previously been accepted to the University of California, Santa Barbara, only to find financial aid would not cover his housing costs.

That’s why he was at L.A. Valley College.

Villasenor, the son of working-class Mexican immigrants, told the cashier he would be right back, knowing full well he would not.

The rising cost of a college education poses a unique obstacle for some minority students, including Latino students. Latinos have a higher than average dropout rate, and if they attend college, they take longer to graduate and are more likely to work full time than any other ethnic group in the United States, according to a 2004 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center.

The study, “Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways,” was written by senior research associate Richard Fry.

In a telephone interview, Fry said culture and family dynamics play a big part in some of the obstacles Latinos face in college.

Latinos are more likely to delay enrollment in college, bear greater financial responsibility for family members, and live at home and not immerse themselves effectively into campus life, a key component to completing school, Fry said.

The study differentiates between less selective and more selective universities, which have different admission standards when it comes to grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores.

According to the study, white students are more than twice as likely to graduate with bachelor’s degrees than Latinos when starting at a community college.

When Latinos are “extremely well prepared” academically, such as by having high GPAs, and attend “more selective” universities, they enroll at a rate equal to that of whites.

Since the less-selective schools cannot compete with the amount of grants available at universities with higher admission standards, they have to improve in other areas, such as lowering class sizes and providing better mentoring opportunities and faculty involvement in students’ lives, Fry said.

Still, these solutions do not address the financial dilemma that produced two of the most surprising statistics in Fry’s report: the number of undergraduates of all backgrounds working more than 30 hours a week, and the fact that nearly half of all Latinos attending community colleges work full time.

That was not what California legislators had in mind 45 years ago.

In 1960, the state Legislature and Gov. Edmund G. Brown established the California Master Plan for Higher Education not only to better organize the state’s UC, CSU and community colleges, but also to make higher education affordable to all.

For many of the state’s residents, Latinos included, the opportunity to climb the economic ladder through education was a dream come true.

Today, with each new fee hike and program cut, more and more students and their families are struggling to hold onto that dream.

“The vision at the time was to set up the junior colleges as a free education,” said Glenn Omatsu, CSUN professor of Asian American studies. “There were no fees.”

Omatsu, who is also the coordinator of faculty mentoring for the Educational Opportunity Program at CSUN, said the state Legislature in 1960 knew it had to have a better-educated workforce to keep up with the growing economy.

There was an attitude, Omatsu said, that education should be a right, not a privilege, available to all Californians.

That attitude flourished until 1979 when voters approved Proposition 13, which radically lowered property taxes and represented a tax-relief for businesses and homeowners.

It also meant a valuable source of income for educational institutions was severely altered.

The money would have to come from somewhere else.

Today, California’s educational system is largely dependent on the health of the state’s economy.

“(Proposition 13) represented a major change in the perception of education,” Omatsu said. It created an environment where “education was seen as a cost rather than an investment.”

In 1984, fees were initiated at $5 per unit at community colleges. and protests ensued.

“If you start charging fees, eventually you’ll price students out of an education,” Omatsu said.

When Omatsu attended East Los Angeles College in the late 1960s, he worked an average of 10 hours per week.

“Today, most are working to finance their education,” Omatsu said. “Every time the fees go up, you have to work more, take less units, take longer to graduate.”

Because some Californians are finding it difficult to work and attend school, Omatsu said, we have a populace that is less educated.

“It sets up this domino effect,” he said.

Omatsu grew up in a working-class family and considers himself fortunate to have gone to school when he did.

“If it was as expensive as (it is) now, I never would have gone to college,” Omatsu said.

For Brissa Saucedo, 21, a sophomore at L.A. Valley College, money is an elusive necessity.

“I’m always saving up money,” said Saucedo, a double major in Spanish and Chicano/a studies.

She works between 22 and 25 hours per week in the foreign language lab and in the school cafeteria.

“It’s hard,” Saucedo said. “I have to fix my school (schedule) around my job schedule, and sometimes I can’t take the classes I want or need because of the jobs.”

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the oldest of three sisters, Saucedo is the first member of her family to attend college, and has helped her 15-year-old sister prepare for her future.

“She’s aiming a little higher,” said Saucedo. “She’s in the medical core (preparatory) program at USC.”

Saucedo’s father, Federico, an auto body repairman, said education is the main key to a successful future for his daughters.

“They can’t afford a house without school,” Federico said. “School is first.”

How Saucedo and her family will pay the steeper fees once she transfers to a university remains to be seen. Saucedo said she is on the cusp of qualifying for financial aid.

“I am worried,” Saucedo said. “There’s a possibility I won’t be qualified, so I have to be prepared.”

Kathryn Anderson, director of financial aid at CSUN, said of the approximately 17,900 CSUN students who received financial aid from 2003 to 2004, 32.5 percent were Latinos.

Between the 2001-2002 and 2004-2005 academic years, CSUN’s tuition fees rose from $907 to $1,388 per semester, an increase of 53 percent.

Likewise, tuition for all CSUs has increased in similar percentages, causing an increased need for student loans.

“(Because of budget cuts), we did have a drop (in) enrollment in the fall, but the number of students applying for aid increased,” Anderson said.

Tuition increases have a bigger impact on middle-income students and those who miss the Mar. 1 financial aid-filing deadline because they are often forced to take out loans and increase their debt, Anderson said.

Anderson said student loans are a much better choice than what many students use to pay for college — credit cards.

When it comes to Latino students and their families, Anderson has noticed a consistent trait during her three years on the job.

“They’re leery about taking out student loans,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure why. Loans are considered bad.”

For students whose annual $15,500 for tuition, books and housing are fully funded
, there is an estimated $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses that are not covered, Anderson said. More than 40 percent of 2004 CSUN aid recipients have an annual income of less than $3,000 a year.

Following his disappointment at UCSB, Daniel Villasenor headed home to Palmdale and enrolled at L.A. Valley College.

“I knew then that I’m not going to give up because I have this obstacle in my way,” Villasenor said. “I need to get over it and keep on trying. Education is very important to me.”

It is also very important to his parents, particularly his mother, Maria Patricia, who attended college in Mexico and worked there as a social worker before coming to the United States.

Here, she and her husband work in an electronics plant. The work is hard and the money is tight. Still, Villasenor’s mother somehow came up with the additional money to pay his fees at L.A. Valley College.

What if the money was not there?

“I’d just take a couple of units, whatever I could afford,” Villasenor said.