“Are you walking?”

That’s the question many Orange County college students have been asking their friends and classmates this month. “Walking,” of course, refers to the act of striding across the podium to pick up a diploma.

But plenty of OC college students aren’t graduating this June and may not ever. Instead, they are struggling to pursue higher education while helping support parents and siblings or squeezing classes into their work schedule, with uneven results.

(Click here to read more about the experiences of local students.)

While being low-income has never made the college experience any easier, experts say the gap in graduation rates among working-class students and other income groups is widening.

“One of the major barriers that lower-income students face is financial need and support,” said Dawn Person, the director of the Center for Research on Educational Access & Leadership at Cal State University Fullerton.

“With the cost of education going up, it’s very difficult for a student from a socioeconomic background where they’re living below poverty line, to even fathom the notion of taking out a loan that may be more than what their parents make in a year. So that’s an issue.”

Research shows that while all income groups have improved in college completion over the decades, the rate is significantly lower for low-income students.

And research shows that community college, a more affordable option for low-income students, is not a reliable stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree. For example, while 81 percent of entering community college students say they want a bachelor’s degree, only 20 percent actually transfer to a four-year institution within five years, according to Columbia University Teachers College.

Making matters worse are the unabated increases in the cost of attending college over three decades. In recent years, state budget cuts have nudged tuition costs even higher, furthering the “diploma gap” in college completion rates between wealthier and poorer students.

Financial Aid Often Isn’t Enough

Most students are eligible for at least some financial aid, which could include need-based grants, academic scholarships, and, in many cases, substantial loans.

But both students and experts say that financial aid doesn’t cover all expenses, it often indebts the most financially fragile students, and it awards funding with stipulations that can penalize.

For example, Person said, financial aid doesn’t go toward remedial classes in some cases, and it sometimes expires over time. Students can easily find themselves in debt for a loan that did not yield credits toward a degree.

“I was just in a conversation last week with a colleague who is working with a male student at the community college level who has become financially ineligible [for aid] because he didn’t complete enough units during the academic year and has a loan that he took out,” Person said.

“If he doesn’t remain enrolled in school, then he starts paying out that loan, then he has to spend more time trying to make money, which detracts from going to school.”

Person compared the experience to the sometimes confusing process of buying a home. “Sometimes so many we don’t know what question to ask. It helps to have someone guiding you,” she said.

Guidance, however, isn’t always easy to find for first-generation college students of modest means. Academic counselors are in short supply, and some parents don’t speak or read English, while others are highly reluctant to disclose personal information on financial aid applications, Person said.

The need to work long hours, sometimes combined with parental expectations that older children will help care for younger children and help pay household expenses, puts a degree further out of reach for some immigrant Latino families in particular.

Inadequate high school preparation – combined with any youthful indiscretions that lead to missing class or falling behind academically – only compounds the challenges of financial hardship.

The SAT Solution

Juan Sandoval, an expert in standardized test preparation, is using a strategy to raise SAT scores among area low-income students so they have a better shot at academic scholarships that would alleviate some of the need for loans and long hours at work during the school year.

As program director of testing services at Stepping Up, a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana, Sandoval believes the payoff for raising his students’ scores an average of 100-150 points could be enormous.

A score of 1,550 out of a possible 2,400 is the threshold at which colleges and universities start offering more generous scholarships, Sandoval said. (The average score among all American students on the SAT in 2013 was 1,498, according to the College Board.)

From left: Juan Sandoval, Jesus Lara and Jorge Padilla celebrate Lara’s graduation this month from Stepping Up. Padilla and Sandoval are mentors at the program. (Photo by: Caitlin Whelan)

He said assumptions that low-income students who struggle to complete college are just not college material are unsound. His argument: wealthier students benefit from intense, expensive assistance on a regular basis. For example, when Sandoval worked in test prep for for-profit companies, students in his classes from Irvine and Anaheim Hills paid $1,200 for a seat.

But $1,200 isn’t even close to the ceiling for college advising costs in Orange County. According to its website, Princeton Review offers a package in one-on-one testing preparation in the 92617 area code in Irvine for $7,200.

College admissions counseling and test prep services for low-income students at Stepping Up are just getting underway, but early results from a pilot effort are promising.

Sandoval said one low-income student at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach was able to raise his scores to about 1,550 in a Stepping Up class. He received grants and scholarships to cover 98 percent of his costs attending the University of Maine in the fall, where he plans to study animal and veterinary science.

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at depaula@uci.edu

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