In 2016, nearly 21 million students attended U.S. colleges and universities, an increase of about 5 million since 2000. With opportunity and access growing, more aspiring students are pursuing a higher education, especially in the university-rich state of California.
For the fall 2017 application cycle, 102,000 hopeful freshmen applied to UCLA; approximately 6,000 were admitted. UCLA now holds the distinction of receiving the highest number of applications in a single year of any U.S. public university.
But getting into college is only half the challenge; paying for it is quite another. According to research conducted by two assistant professors of economics, in a paper titled “Accounting for the Rising in College Tuition,” the cost of college tuition more than doubled from 1987 to 2010, and outpaced inflation by 2-4 percent.
“The intense focus on getting into college has centered the conversation on how to get in, and moved it away from how to pay for it,” says Monica Roberts, director of the Sacramento Cal-SOAP Consortium for the Sacramento County Office of Education. Community organizations and college and career counselors are working to shift that mindset through education and access.
Through the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, Roberts and her staff are charged with getting more kids into college by making them aware of their post-secondary options, and then assisting them with the college application and financial aid process.
“If I could send any message, it would be to tell students that filling out scholarship applications is really worth the effort,” Roberts says. “Most scholarships don’t get the kind of pull that they ought to, so the odds for students are really pretty good.”
In addition to its tutoring and advising programs, SCOE also serves as the regional coordinating organization for a program called Cash for College. Underwritten by the California Student Aid Commission, the Cash for College program hosts free workshops for students and families to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) the California Dream Act and Chafee Grant for Foster Youth applications.
The FAFSA and California Dream Act applications serve as the primary gateway to all financial aid, including federal, state, campus and institutional aid, as well as many private scholarships, but many families never complete them. “Some families think they don’t need to fill out the FAFSA because they don’t feel they qualify for any money,” says Patti Colston, communications manager for the California Student Aid Commission. “But they are actually doing themselves a disservice, because there is such a wide array of options that might be available to them that they may not even know about.”
Colston is also in charge of coordinating a program called the Middle Class Scholarship. “Most people think it’s a scholarship they apply for and get, but it’s actually a tuition discount,” she says. To start the process, a student must first complete the FAFSA or the California Dream Act application and be enrolled in a California State University or University of California campus. If they meet the income and asset requirement, they automatically receive the tuition discount, which varies from 10 percent to 40 percent of the cost of tuition and fees. The income and asset ceiling for the 2017-2018 academic year is $165,000.
The Sacramento Region Community Foundation also aims to improve access to federal and state financial aid and scholarships through its education and training programs. In addition, the foundation manages a list of over 40 local and statewide scholarships with awards ranging from $500 to $7,000.
“We do a huge outreach effort to alert people in our four-county service area, as well as the state, on our scholarship opportunities,” says Priscilla Enriquez, the foundation’s chief giving officer. “Because our scholarships are diverse and versatile, we want as many eligible students to apply for them as possible.”
Veronica De Alba Cruz, who provides college and career guidance at Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova, encourages her students to apply for scholarships, especially local ones. In addition to more traditional communication methods, like the department’s scholarship website page and bulletin board, Cruz regularly posts on social media and injects humor in her posts.
“When I went to Las Vegas, I bought a handheld fan made from $100 bills,” she says. “I held the fan up to my face and took a picture and then added a little caption that said something like, ‘Got money? Apply for scholarships!’” On average, Cruz and the counseling staff compile a list of about 100 different scholarships each year.
Cruz had one particularly proactive student who was seeking scholarship money after being accepted to UCLA. “I told him to come to my scholarship workshop and I would help him find some scholarships to apply for,” she says. The student applied for everything he was eligible for and was able to close the gap between his financial aid and the total cost without taking out any student loans.
“He is a good example of how students can get that extra little bit of money that they need for college just by applying,” Cruz says.