Larry Gordon/EdSource Today
Fernanda Soto, a senior at Banning High in Los Angeles, chose UCLA in part because of financial aid there.

Decision day is finally here.

The SAT exam and anxious cramming are past. Admissions application essays and financial aid forms were submitted months ago. And the happy acceptances and painful rejections from colleges and universities are in hand.

So in recent days, Fernanda Soto and thousands of other California high school seniors have been weighing their options, evaluating financial aid offers and trying to decide by the May 1 deadline which college to attend.

“It’s scary finding out if you will be helped out or not,” said Soto, who is a senior at Banning High School in Wilmington, near the Los Angeles harbor. An excellent student from a low-income family, she had narrowed her finalists to UCLA and UC Berkeley. After a last-minute trip to Berkeley and an unsuccessful effort to win more aid there, she recently chose the Westwood campus mainly because her grants from the school and from state and federal programs totaled about $32,000. That is enough to cover all her school bills, including housing and meals, without having to take out any loans.

Such a decision process can be difficult for all students and parents as they examine grants and whether they need to consider loans. But experts say the choices can be especially stressful for students from low-income families with little history of college attendance.

“Anything that has to do with finances can be confusing to a lot of folks. And when you are the first student in the family going through the process, with no experience, it makes it that much more difficult,” said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

She and other experts caution that students must carefully consider how much debt they can take on. In addition, high school seniors should research schools’ locations, majors, graduation rates, counseling support and extracurricular activities. “Cost and financial aid are absolutely a part of it but students should think about a lot of things (to determine) if a school will be a right choice,” Coval said.

Reforms this year gave students three extra months to fill in the federal aid application used by most colleges. In the end, award packages did not arrive any earlier and choices were not any less agonizing, say counselors.

Federal statistics show a gap in college attendance by income. About 63 percent of low- and middle-income high school graduates nationwide enrolled in college in 2015, compared to 83 percent of those in the top 20 percent of earners, according to  U.S. Department of Education figures.

Good students from low-income families in California often receive solid financial packages that include state Cal Grants, federal Pell grants, campus grants and federal loans. In fact, 57 percent of UC students and 60 percent of CSU students have their tuition – but not necessarily their housing and other costs – fully covered by those awards, the universities report.

As a result, Californians have smaller student loans than residents of most other states: 54 percent of California graduates in 2015 had loans and their average total was $22,191, compared to the 68 percent nationally with loans and an average $30,100 debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Still, families may need advice to understand the differences between grants and loans, as well as the various types of loans, interest rates and repayment schedules, according to Eric Blanco, who is a counselor at Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria and is president of the California Association of School Counselors. Some students and parents don’t realize that they are not required to accept all the loans offered, he added. And some get tempted by hefty financial aid at an unsuitable school.

“If they want to go into a particular major and the school does not offer it, finances don’t matter much,” Blanco said.

Some first generation and immigrant families oppose borrowing even small amounts, counselors report. So some parents pressure academically strong students to start at a lower-cost community college rather than a university.

For many students, Blanco said that starting at a community college can be an excellent and economical choice with the goal to transfer to a university in two years. But some other counselors caution students about the relatively low completion rates and difficulty to obtain classes at some community colleges and say it might be wiser to start at a UC or CSU with manageable loans.

Karina Dorado, a coordinator of the College Bound program, at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor.

Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Karina Dorado, a coordinator of the College Bound program, at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor.

Karina Dorado, a coordinator of the College Bound advising program at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, sits at a desk backed by a wall of colorful college pennants. The program spends a lot of time guiding students through testing, campus visits and applications. Now in the days before the deposit deadlines, family conferences often are about money.

“Paying for school is always a worry for our parents, especially our first generation and low-income families. They are nervous about taking out a loan,” Dorado said. So she explains that students themselves, not the parents, usually have to pay back the debt, presumably with the decent incomes they earn after graduation. And she said she tries to ease the students’ fears by making sure their loans are not too large and that most are federally subsidized, with interest and payments deferred until after graduation. Borrowing up to about $20,000 total over the four years, which is near average for student borrowers across California, should not deter students from a school they love, Dorado said.

“We encourage them not to think about it as a loan or a debt but to think about it as investing in their future,” she said at a club facility in Wilmington.

Low-income parents may have reasons to be leery of loans.

A recent College Board study detailed the disparity on how much debt college students accrue: The study showed that 79 percent of students from families with incomes below $65,000 have at least some college debt compared to 55 percent of students from families with incomes above $106,000. And, the lower income students are more likely to have loans totaling $30,000 or more at graduation – 24 percent compared to 16 percent for the higher income students.

Long active in the College Bound program, Fernanda Soto reviewed her options with Dorado. Her UC Berkeley offer required an annual $4,000 loan and $4,000 work-study job after state and federal grants. In contrast, a special UCLA scholarship covered that gap without a loan or a job and gave her a free ride for all costs including housing and meals.

Still, attracted to the prospect of going to school in Northern California, Soto applied for another Berkeley grant to replace the loans. Her mother is a child care provider and her father, a former construction worker, is unemployed after an injury. “My parents can’t help me in any way. And I’d just rather not be in debt,” she said.

UC Berkeley recently flew her and other prospective freshmen from the Los Angeles area up for a recruiting visit and put them up overnight in a local hotel. But Soto was disappointed by what she felt was an unsafe environment around the Berkeley campus, with all the street people and homeless roaming around. And she did not like the Bay area’s grey skies and rain. And with that school so far from home, she was worried that she would feel “lonely.” Then, she did not receive that extra grant.

So a few days later, the future sociology major attended UCLA’s Bruin Day of tours for admitted students. “I loved the atmosphere. There was so much energy,” she said. She finalized her choice and will live in UCLA dorms, about 30 miles from her family compared to 390 miles between Berkeley and home.

   Fernando Olmos, a senior at Roosevelt High School’s math, science and technology magnet in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, faced a similar decision. Olmos and his mother, Maria Flores, came to talk things over with a counselor at College Track, a college readiness and success organization where Olmos has been active.

Fernando Olmos and his mother Maria Flores confer about his financial aid offers with a counselor at the College Track organization.

Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Fernando Olmos and his mother Maria Flores confer about his financial aid offers with a counselor at the College Track organization.

To his initial regret, Olmos was denied admission to his dream school, UC Santa Cruz; he filed an appeal. Meanwhile he narrowed finalist alternatives to UC Merced and San Francisco State, with Cal Grants and Pell grants available for him at both. He saw that an additional grant from the UC campus would leave him with about $5,000 in loans, about half the size he would need for San Francisco State, even though the tuition on paper is higher at UC than at the CSU campus.

His widowed mother, who works as a payroll clerk, can’t contribute much but was willing to take on parental loans if that helps him attend the best school to study business and management. “I just want him to be happy and comfortable,” she said, adding that she is discouraging her son from work study jobs that might take hours away from studies his first year.

Olmos tentatively decided that the aid made it “a no brainer” to attend Merced if Santa Cruz didn’t come through. While he had some apprehensions about Merced’s rural location in the San Joaquin Valley, about 125 miles inland and away from Santa Cruz’s coastline location, he liked the idea of a smaller and newer campus (UC Merced opened in 2005). Plus, he preferred the prestige of UC and was happy to learn that about 46 percent of its undergraduates are Latino like him.

“Overall it’s a better fit for me and it’s a smarter choice,” he said in the meeting with his mother and Flavia Lake, a College Track coordinator. Lake noted that Merced’s four-year graduation rate is 40 percent, about double that of San Francisco State.

At UC Merced, Olmos received $25,000 in grants and was offered $5,000 in federal loans plus the chance for some work-study hours. “Financially you are very well set up at Merced,” Lake said, adding that Olmos can pay for transportation and a new laptop with the extra private scholarship money he previously won.

Then, two weeks later, UC Santa Cruz denied Olmos’ admissions appeal. His previously tentative choice of UC Merced became a lock even though he had not yet visited the campus. “I’m content with my decision. I feel there may be something special waiting for me at Merced. I’m excited about it,” he said.

Financial aid “is probably the number one factor for our students and families,” explained Saskia Pallais, College Track’s Los Angeles regional executive director. The agency counsels students not to borrow more than a total of $30,000 over the four years and encourages them to attend what it calls “Best Fit” schools, which graduate first generation and minority students at rates above national averages and offer services to help them succeed.

“Financial need can be a deciding factor but so is: where are you going to be most successful,” said Pallais.

Meanwhile, future UCLA student Soto confirmed that finances and campus atmosphere both contributed to her decision. “I don’t believe I made the wrong choice,” she said. To let the rest of the world know, she plans to visit the campus bookstore soon to buy a sweatshirt with “UCLA” emblazoned on it.

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  1. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 6 months ago6 months ago

    It seems wrong that it's all so complicated -- low-SES families trying to figure out the calculus between colleges' sky-high costs for tuition, room and board relative to partial financial aid offers relative to different institutions' intrinsic academic strengths and social values. I don't think low-SES families should have to take on debt to make college happen for their deserving kids. I don't think a student with siblings from low or middle-income families should become … Read More

    It seems wrong that it’s all so complicated — low-SES families trying to figure out the calculus between colleges’ sky-high costs for tuition, room and board relative to partial financial aid offers relative to different institutions’ intrinsic academic strengths and social values.

    I don’t think low-SES families should have to take on debt to make college happen for their deserving kids. I don’t think a student with siblings from low or middle-income families should become indebted to pay for four years of college. Universities seek and trumpet their “diversity” enrollments and, on principle, they should pay for such students rather than require loans.

    Loans and modest debt may be necessary for graduate school, but not for kids ages 17 to 21 years from struggling families who are just figuring out what they are interested in and may be living away from home for the first time in their lives.

    I