July 12, 2016 by poverty2professional
Everyone knows the season when college acceptance letters materialize in mailboxes (both physical and digital): pink and white blossoms swath trees, cut grass smells a little thicker in the warming air and the sun rises just a little earlier. This was how fresh and full of spring March 18, 2009 felt – the University of California system’s promised day to release admission results online for its golden flagship campuses, Berkeley and UCLA. My state’s most prestigious public universities were perhaps the most highly anticipated selection at my high school right after the Ivies. Maybe more so because these were the close-to-home schools. Not distant Harvard or Yale, but the campuses that were supposed to have made those A-G course requirements (the classes you need just be considered for the University of California) finally pay off. Only one kid had ever made it to Harvard in recent memory, but a whole smattering of us got into UCLA only last year. They all swore it was life-changing. Their Facebook pages certainly testified to it.
When my friends neurotically checked their phones at lunch, I ran to the school’s library computers and scrolled through my inbox. Nothing.
“They’re supposed to come out by 6 p.m.” The school-circulated gossip kept us fidgety in our seats all day long. “I hear if you get into Berkeley, then you don’t get into UCLA. They only take you at one or the other.”
Finally, after school and after I got out of tutoring, I jumped into the car with my dad and begged him to take me to the public library.
“Great, so we’ll know you’ve been accepted to college, but we’ll be written up for being late,” he grumbled, but speedily drove us over. I asked if he was as anxious to know as I was. “After putting up with your frantic ass all this time? Hell yeah.”
Half an hour of waiting later, I finally got a computer terminal. I logged into my account.
Maybe I got rejected?
I waited fifteen minutes. I browsed, I read the Yahoo News, I checked again, refreshed again. Zilch.
“C’mon, kid!” My dad waved his arm at me from across the computer lab. It was a few minutes past six. We couldn’t afford to be late to the shelter after 6:30. We left the library and I started to think about my second choice schools. I had applied to eight California public universities, four from each of the systems because that’s how many you could apply to for free if your family was low-income. Among the Cal States, I had Los Angeles, Long Beach, Northridge, and Fullerton. With the University of California campuses it was UC Irvine, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and, of course, UCLA. After despairing that I wouldn’t get in anywhere, I had gotten into all of them so far. I had an excellent selection.
My dad affirmed that. “Santa Barbara is a very good school,” he said.
I smiled. “Yeah, I heard the parties are awesome.”
Dad suddenly frowned and chewed on his cigarette. “I think you got more financial aid from Irvine. You should go with that.”
I went to sleep wholly okay with my other options. Either way I was going to college. The first person in my family to pursue a bachelor’s degree was gonna be me! I rolled into first period the next morning ready to share my selection if anyone asked.
“Did you get in?”
“Did you get into UCLA?” My classmate, Sarah*, blinked large brown eyes at me. “The notices didn’t get emailed until, like, eleven o’clock last night. Did you see?”
Since we didn’t have open access WiFi or Internet at the Pound, no, I hadn’t. Sarah whipped out her smart phone and opened the Internet browser on it. Immediately, she demanded my personal information. Full name, birthday, social security.
At that time, our English teacher arrived, opened up the classroom door and herded us all in. “Yes, I’m sorry I’m late. No, you don’t get an extension on the paper. I just gave everyone an extra five minutes.”
I had barely taken my seat when Sarah jumped up two rows away. “Omigod! Dude, look!”
I turned over to look…and she passed the phone to her friend. “Wow! No way!” Who passed it to another kid. “Nice!” And another. The phone circulated the classroom while I sat there, still wound up in suspense, until our teacher plucked the phone from one student, glanced at it, then turned to me and announced, “Well, congratulations, Ms. Sanchez. You’ve been accepted to UCLA.”
Admittedly, it was a little epic.
I relished the day, walking high knowing I’d been accepted into my dream school. When I told him after school, my father shared my joy for approximately forty-five seconds.
“Dad, I got in!” Proudest words right there.
I should’ve framed what he said next. “Congratulations! You’re a Bruin! Way to go champ!”
“Okay, how are you gonna pay for it?”
And there it was. Well, damn. Tuition and student fees were over $9,000 at at the time (now it’s over $13,000). That doesn’t include housing (i.e. dorms on campus and meal plans), books, computers, transportation, or other associated costs of going to college.
“I filed my FAFSA,” I pointed out. “It said we don’t have to pay anything.” I was referring to what’s called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). When the FAFSA gods are done crunching the numbers after you’ve put in all your tax and income information, the final application calculates how much it is deemed acceptable for your family to pay toward your college education. My EFC was zero.
“But that means the school can still offer you loans,” my dad countered. “I read the shit they send home with you. I’m informed.” Somebody give this man a cookie. My dad was never short on his due diligence of my college application and financial aid materials.
So, I went to the college counselor at my high school. She explained that colleges will usually send more financial aid packages within the coming weeks and that I should keep applying to scholarships in the meantime. Okay. That was reasonable. I’d gotten a couple of aid notices from the other schools, including UC Irvine and Riverside. I waited for UCLA and applied to scholarships both within my city and at UCLA that were offered to incoming freshmen (the Alumni Scholarship).
Within the month, UCLA sent a special award letter that noted both my financial status and high academic performance earned me a scholarship for my first year. I had also clinched a four-year scholarship from a generous alumnus donor. The points (and dollars) were starting to add up. By April, I finally visited the campus. (Note: This is kind of a no-no. If you’re applying to colleges, you should really, really try to visit the campuses first and slip into a class if you can to observe actual college students who attend the school. It will give you a MUCH better idea of what you’re getting into.) Around the same time, I had my first estimated financial aid offer, with Cal Grants and Pell Grants (remember: grant = money you do NOT have to pay back) offsetting a bulk of costs. Two of my community scholarships also came back with offers. Piece by piece, I was pulling in funds and folks were throwing their hats in the ring.
The final offer that tipped the scales was the opportunity to attend UCLA’s summer bridge program, a six-week session that would let me take two classes while living on campus and getting my feet wet before fall started. How could I say no?
“Dad, I’m submitting to UCLA my Statement of Intent to Register.” This is known as SIR-ing.
“You’re really going to go? I thought you just applied to prove you could get in.”
I have him a look. “I’m doing the online signature tomorrow morning.”
Here’s the takeaway: Commit to schools you are at least 90% sure you have a financial balance on. Keep your loans to a minimum in the first year. Remember, you still have three more years (sometimes more) ahead of you to take on debt. Be very careful in how much you start out with.
Secondly, look at how much colleges offer you in the award letter and where it’s coming from. They’ll use words like “Stafford loan,” “Parent Plus,” and “Subsidized loan.” This is all money you have to pay back and sometimes the letter will list them right next to grants and scholarships (free money you don’t have to pay back). How do you keep track of it all? Use this: the Award Letter Analyzer. This is a wonderful worksheet offered by an organization call uAspire. Print it out and write in the amounts for each of the areas your college award letter lists. The PDF version has enough space for three colleges. This Excel document has three more sheets with it (and you can type in the lines!). All in all, you get a clean, clear view of how much aid you’ll receive and which colleges will cost more out of pocket.
If you’re a counselor or tutor reading this blog, use this with your student! Show them how even more aid at a school with high tuition does not necessarily mean less out-of-pocket expenses. It is not the most expensive schools that produce the best outcomes. It’s the schools that offer a quality education and future career opportunities without driving their students into debt that do. Check out the Social Mobility Index to compare institutions. Studies have shown that college degrees have the greatest impact on individuals from the lowest economic quintile. And it’s making informed and financially healthy decisions that offer the best start to a bright future in higher education.
*Note: Names are changed in this blog to protect identity and privacy.