The College Challenge

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Pamela Price spent months investigating scholarships and helping her college-bound son, Aaron, fill out applications; as a result, he may get a free ride all four years. Meanwhile, Jean Ray is looking at having to find $17,000 a year for her daughter Brooke’s college education. For the parents of Vernon Payne, the amount is $12,000. Angela Serrano had to settle for part-time attendance at a community college and still has to work long hours to support herself and her schooling.

With this installment of “The College Challenge,” Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams explores how these families are tackling the daunting task of paying for a college education. The four students she profiles, all freshmen, are among nine Catalyst is following in an ongoing series exploring the bumpy road many black and Latino students have to navigate to get a bachelor’s degree. (See story.)

Money is one of the biggest hurdles for prospective college students—particularly minority students, whose families, on average, have lower incomes and less wealth than whites. Meanwhile, increases in tuition and fees are now outpacing inflation, according to the College Board, putting the average tuition at a private university at over $16,000 per year. At public universities, the average is about $3,500. Room and board bring the total higher.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which oversees the state’s aid programs, considers rising costs one of the two biggest barriers to higher education – the other is academic preparation for college-level work. The financial burden is particularly heavy on students who don’t complete college, the commission reports, because they do not reap the benefits of higher-paying jobs that go to college graduates. And minority students are far more likely than whites not to complete college, according to commission statistics.

College financial aid officers say that the tab often catches parents by surprise. For example, a survey by Washington, D.C.-based Peter D. Hart and Associates found that 82 percent of parents who planned to send their children to college had saved only $1,000 or less. Illinois is one state that has set up a special pre-paid tuition program, called College Illinois, that allows parents to pay future tuition costs now, thus avoiding future increases.

In Illinois, tuition historically has been somewhat higher than the national average; for 2001-2002, it’s over $4,700 at public universities and $17,000 at private institutions. (Average room and board in Illinois is about $5,150 at public universities and $6,250 at private ones.)

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission readily admits that its budget, set by the General Assembly, can’t keep pace. Over the past decade, Illinois tuition increases have averaged about 7 percent a year while the commission’s budget has gone up about 4 percent a year, says Public Information Officer Lauri Thull.

Even so, Illinois received an “A” for affordability from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, largely because its main grant program, the Monetary Award Program (MAP), is the third largest in the county, behind New York State and California.

Through MAP, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission this year will award $375 million—an increase of $18 million over last year—to some 141,000 students. However, a 2000 report by the commission found that while the average MAP award is increasing, many students who qualified for a grant 10 years ago likely wouldn’t make the cut today.

Thull explains: The commission aims to award grants that will cover a certain percentage of a student’s tuition; with costs increasing faster than the commission’s grant budget, the commission has had to cut back on the number of grants.

In the spring legislative session, the commission tried unsuccessfully to get an extra $12 million to expand Illinois Incentive for Access, a five-year-old program that provides grants to the neediest first-year college students, those who will receive no financial help from their families.

“It was designed to help first-year students get a jump-start and help them realize that college is affordable and they can do it,” says Thull. The commission wanted to double the maximum grant, to $1,000, and expand the program to students whose aid applications show they have only “minimal” resources from family.

“What we found was that there’s very little difference between students who have no resources and those who have just a little,” says Thull. The commission also lobbied unsuccessfully for additional money to provide MAP grants to students attending school less than half time; the agency plans to take another shot during the spring 2002 session.

Aaron Price

Scholarship champ

sails into Morehouse

On Aug. 21, Aaron Price moved into a dormitory at Morehouse College in Atlanta with the typical new-freshman jitters. “I was a little freaked out,” he concedes. But Aaron and his parents were spared a burden that weighs on many a new college student: the specter of debt looming at the end of four years.

“We were really fortunate,” says his mother, Pamela Price. “We don’t have to pay for anything.”

With foresight and diligence instilled by two college-educated parents, Aaron amassed $65,000 in scholarships to apply toward a likely bill of some $83,500 for four years of tuition, room and board at Morehouse. The family plans to go after additional scholarships to pay for the remainder.

“I started looking for money when I started looking for schools last fall,” says Aaron, who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class from Kenwood High in June.

Here’s what he received:

$52,400 from the United Negro College Fund

$4,045 from Shore Bank

$3,000 from Operation Push

A $2,000 math scholarship from Kenwood

A $1,000 Sara L. Spurlark Award Scholarship, named for a former Kenwood assistant principal

$500 each from Iota Phi Lambda, an African-American sorority, and Alpha Phi Alpha, an African-American fraternity

Aaron also qualified for a Golden Apple Foundation scholarship but could not accept it because he is attending an out-of-state school.

“We applied for everything coming and going,” says Price. “It’s all about perseverance.”

From the beginning, the Prices kept their ears to the ground and spread the word that they were searching. “I told Aaron to stay in touch with his counselors and to let them know his goals, where he wanted to go and that he was interested in scholarships,” says Pamela Price, chuckling. “He was in the counselor’s office every day.”

The strategy worked. It was a school counselor who told the family about the Spurlark Award and Kenwood’s math scholarship. Later a Kenwood teacher called the family after discovering only one student from the school had applied to the United Negro Scholarship Fund (UNCF). That teacher wanted to know why Aaron hadn’t, his mother says.

Last year, 33 Chicago public school students received UNCF scholarships renewable each year for four years as long as they maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, says Lisa Rollins, the director of UNCF’s Chicago office.

Aaron’s scholarship came from a fund that UNCF administers specifically for graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. The fund’s money comes from Chicago public school teachers. It was launched 10 years ago with a total of $8,000 in donations. Since then, it has grown to $850,000 last year and may reach over $1.1 million this year, making it UNCF’s largest work-place campaign. “This is remarkable, and it’s not nearly as publicized as it should be,” says Rollins.

Aaron also benefited from suggestions made by family friends, church members and civic colleagues. (The Prices are members of Operation PUSH and bank at Shore Bank.) Price’s advice to parents on the prowl for college funding: Apply for everything, regardless of the amount of time it takes.

“There were quite a few scholarships we didn’t receive,” says Price. “For instance, we had applied for a $5,000 Jackie Robinson scholarship [administered by the Robinson family foundation in his honor] and the Gates Millennium Scholarship,” financed by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

Aaron did not get a Gates Scholarship, aimed at minority students with the most financial need, because it is administered by UNCF. “It was one or the other,” says Price. “We couldn’t get UNCF and that one, too.” She says she isn’t sure why Aaron didn’t get the Robinson scholarship.

Price notes that some scholarships, like the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship, are not awarded until the junior or senior year. She says the groups that administer those scholarships want to see what students

can do before they give out money. When Aaron is eligible, the family will apply. Price advises parents to work on the applications with their children.

“You cannot leave it up to the child,” she stresses. “We sat side by side with Aaron, filling out scholarship [forms]. I checked that spelling was correct, that questions were answered correctly and fully. Your kids need you at this time, and you have to let them know that [looking for funding] is important.”

The scholarship hunt should be ongoing, says Price. Once students have selected a major, they may find that their own schools or private organizations award scholarships in that area. “Aaron is pretty sure he wants to major in math,” says Price. “So, I’ll start focusing on that area and look for money. If he wants to go to grad school, I’ll know what’s available.”

With money worries out of the way, Aaron has been able to concentrate fully on getting used to his new environment. He says his roommate is “nice and polite,” a perfect match. And he doesn’t think he’ll have a problem in any of his classes, which include college algebra, English, world history and introduction to religion.

And just like he did at Kenwood, he’s making sure he’s front and center. “I’ve already talked to all my professors,” says Aaron. “I want to make sure they know who I am.”

Brooke Ray

Loves USC,

money a concern

On Aug. 27, Brooke Ray attended the first day of classes at her dream college, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her course load includes writing, educational development, social issues and gender, and a seminar to help freshmen acclimate to campus life. “Things are going good,” she reports. “I did my first paper in writing, and I can’t wait to see how I did. I like it here.”

Her mother, Jean Ray, couldn’t be happier. At Orr High School, Brooke had been diligent about keeping her grades up and participating in activities so that her application to USC would stand out. “That girl really worked hard,” her mom says. “She was always involved in some activity because she wanted to go to that school.”

However, there is a big cloud in this picture: Covering the $36,000 annual cost of an education at USC. So far, Brooke has lined up $11,800 from a federal Perkins loan and $4,000 in scholarships, including $2,500 from Future Teachers of Chicago, $1,000 from the Westside Police Association and $500 from Orr, where she was the No. 1 student for three years and the 2001 valedictorian.

That leaves Jean Ray with a hefty bill of some $17,000 per year.

Jean Ray, a single parent who recently started a new job with longer hours and more responsibilities, regretfully acknowledges she didn’t spend much time helping her daughter find money. She also suspects that Brooke’s chances for getting financial assistance from USC were hurt because she filed aid forms late.

Jean Ray earns $50,000 a year as a cardiology lab technician; she also has a part-time weekend tech job. She’s not sure how she’ll cover that extra $17,000 a year.

“It will be a strain, but I’ll work overtime if I have to,” says Ray. ˜I want her to stay there. I don’t want to have to pull her out.”

Ray also has a son with college plans.

Kathy Thomas, the dean of financial aid at USC, says many families find themselves in Jean Ray’s position. “People are shocked by the amount, and many families are under prepared,” she says.

“The families that have no problems with finances for college are the very low-income families and families with unlimited financial resources,” says Thomas. “We find that it’s the families in the middle—the middle-income families—who struggle.”

Thomas says that in determining university aid, USC looks at parent and student assets, how many people are in the family, the age of the parent, whether there are other children in college, medical costs and the family’s federal, state and local taxes. Based on that information, the university then estimates the amount of discretionary money the family should have.

Thomas offers families this financing formula for tuition: Save a third, carve another third out of current income and borrow the final third. “College is an investment,” she says. “In the ideal situation, this is what parents should do to make that investment.”

Still, Ray believes Orr should have given her daughter more help. “Some teachers were really in her corner, but something was still lacking at that school,” she says. “I don’t believe Orr did everything it could to help her find money.”

For instance, Ray says that when she and Brooke attended a celebration for Chicago public school valedictorians, she discovered how much money other students were getting and was astounded. “One kid got $72,000. I didn’t know where to find scholarships, but I know the money is out there. How come the school didn’t know about these scholarships? The school should have helped her more.”

Brooke worked as an aide in the Orr counseling office, often handing out scholarship and financial aid forms to other students. She says she never thought to fill out some of those same forms herself.

Sandra Ross, the assistant to the dean of students at Orr, says she tried to steer Brooke to a historically black college, where she was sure Brooke would qualify for a United Negro College Fund Scholarship.

“With her background and grades, that girl could have gotten a four-year scholarship,” says Ross “I gave her the application and everything. One of our students who had a 4.0 GPA got a full UNCF scholarship, but Brooke didn’t want to do it. She was determined to go to California.”

At USC, Brooke has taken on a work-study job to help pay her expenses.

“I’m an office assistant in the admissions office,” says Brooke. “I put together folders and packages for prospective students. So far, my [work] schedule is set up in between my classes. When things are slow, I can study. I’m not having a problem juggling the two.”

Jean Ray says, “Brooke has always worked. On top of all her outside activities, she once worked four jobs at the same time. People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. That’s why I don’t mind sacrificing for her. We’ll be struggling with money, but I don’t want her to have to come home. She’s such a good kid.”

Angela Serrano

One set-back

after another

In her junior year at Hubbard High, Angela Serrano decided she wanted to go to college—specifically the flag ship University of Illinois at Urbana—to study veterinary medicine. A month before she graduated, she learned she had not been accepted.

The shy daughter of an immigrant parent, Serrano was unaware of the steps she needed to take to fulfill her academic dream or something close to it. Then, this summer, a family health crisis took her even farther away. Today, she is enrolled part time at a community college and working full time in a hotel restaurant. But Angela is determined to get a bachelor’s degree.

“I look at my mother, and she’s still young,” she says. “She’s only 42 years old, and she’s had such a hard time with jobs, and now she’s hurt. I don’t want to be like that, and I don’t want to do what I’m doing now for the rest of my life.”

Angela’s grades and ACT scores made her a long shot for the U. of I. She says she filled out applications to 10 other schools but then didn’t mail them.

When the U. of I. rejection notice arrived, she says, “I thought I was going to cry.”

In July, she signed up for classes at Morton Community College in Cicero, just five minutes away from her home, and promised herself that she’d bring her grades up and try getting into University of Illinois at Chicago, then transferring to the Urbana campus.

A month later, her mother injured her spine and was scheduled for surgery; for six months or more, she’d be sidelined from her job as a banquet server in Oak Brook. Angela, who worked alongside her mother part time during the school year, would have to take on more financial responsibility at home and pay for her schooling herself.

“When I decided to go to Morton, I figured it wouldn’t cost that much, plus I was counting on my mom helping,” she says. “I didn’t know I’d be doing this all by myself.”

At Morton, Angela signed up for three classes—math, English and music history—that cost a total of $600 in tuition and books. She wanted to take five classes, but didn’t have the money.

Angela brings home close to $1,200 a month in wages and tips. Monthly payments on her used car, car insurance, cell phone, groceries and a small debt come close to $600, leaving her only $600 for entry into college. Angela and her mother currently live with her uncle, so, at the moment, don’t have to worry about rent and utilities. However, she says that because of family issues, that could change.

Angela may well qualify for financial aid, including a $500 grant from Illinois Incentive for Access, a state program aimed at first-time college students who have no family resources to help them pay for college. At Hubbard, Angela talked with a counselor about applying to college but didn’t raise the issue of money. At Morton, she got information but didn’t follow through.

“When I went to register for classes, someone told me to go to Financial Aid to apply for financial aid, and I did, but I didn’t turn them in,” she says. “I

didn’t think I’d get anything. Now I’ll turn them in.”

Without additional money to pay for additional courses, Angela faces a long haul. “At the rate I’m going, I’ll be in school forever,” she says.

She wants to work more but would probably have to find a different job to make the scheduling work, she says.

Angela’s first week of school was August 20. She got disappointing news right away: The results of placement tests put her in remedial classes in both math and English, which pushed her goal even farther away.

“These courses are to help build students up to college-level courses,” says Lori Rabehl of Morton’s counseling and testing center. “They are developmental and skill-building courses, and even Morton does not count them toward a degree. After a semester, students can go to basic college-level courses.”

According to Rabehl, 65 percent of Morton students are enrolled in remedial English classes, and 75 percent are in remedial math.

“At first, I was really upset because it was like starting all over again,” says Angela, who graduated from Hubbard with a grade-point average of 2.24 on a 4-point scale. “But I know this is what I need.” She hopes to work her way up to college level courses after one semester.

After her first week of class, Angela reports doing well. “My mind is getting refreshed. I’m remembering stuff I’d forgotten. My classes are a little too easy, especially the math. I feel pretty good right now, because I am in school.”

But she still feels like she’s in foreign territory. “I’m really not sure how this whole college thing works,” she says. “Do you take two semesters of each class? I don’t know these things. College is a lot different from high school. I’m going to have to talk to a counselor again.”

Says Krueger, “Most of our students are part time, like Angela, [and] also plan to attend four-year colleges. However, we let students know they have options. For one, they can complete an associate’s degree in a year or a year and a half and enter the job field then. Many of our kids [then] start out in manager level positions.”

That’s not something Angela wants to think about. She’s holding tight to her goal of transferring to the U. of I. and becoming a veterinarian.

“This is still something I want to do,” says Angela. “I don’t want to think about doing something else, not yet anyway.”

Vernon Payne

Getting organized

the biggest challenge

Vernon Payne has no financial worries as he anticipates his first year studying art at Columbia College Chicago. His parents plan to pick up the $12,000-plus annual tab to attend the private arts-and-media college full time.

“We’ll do whatever is necessary—work overtime, pull down an annuity. We’ll pay his tuition,” says his mother, Theodosia Payne, a Chicago public school special education teacher. Vernon’s father is a Chicago police officer.

However, Vernon is having difficulty with some other requisites: organization and preparation. As a so-so student at Morgan Park High School, Vernon focused on art, paying scant attention to certain tough academics and other basics, such as showing up to class on time and completing homework. He did virtually no advance planning for college. Not knowing where Vernon might be attending school, his family did no planning on the money side.

Columbia has an open-admissions policy—anyone with a high school diploma can enroll—and allows prospective students to register up to the first day of classes, on Sept. 24 this year. At Catalyst press time in mid-September, Vernon still hadn’t registered, saying someone at the school gave him the wrong date—students are assigned dates based on the first initial of their last name.

He was planning to try again just before school begins. According to officials at Columbia, he’ll have plenty of company.

“Our late registrations are pretty healthy,” says Carol Bryant of Columbia’s media relations office. “We do find that our students tend to hem-haw. This year, one-third of our students have yet to register.”

The reasons? Bryant offers a couple: Many students come from backgrounds where college is not a tradition, so they have no role models at home. Many come from schools where counselors are so bogged down that they have not taken time to explain college expectations.

To accommodate such students, Columbia offers some late registration, even after classes begin. This year, Bryant adds, the school has added an orientation to help students make the transition from high school.

“Students will meet in fairly small groups and meet other students who will be studying in the same area,” she explains.

Columbia also requires all freshmen to enroll in a freshman seminar to help them decide on a major, to expose them to different areas of study and to develop writing, math and other skills they will need in higher-level courses.

All freshmen also will be assigned to counselors from the school’s new freshman office, created to help freshmen stay in school.

In the meantime, Vernon is looking forward to starting school. “I’ll make sure I register on the right day this time. I’ve always wanted to go to Columbia.”