Ever since taking a field trip to several college campuses during her freshman year at Costa Mesa’s Estancia High School, Wendy De La Rosa has set her sights on attending a four-year university.

And in March, when she was accepted to the top school on her list, Cal State Channel Islands, De La Rosa thought she had reached her goal.

But then she received the financial aid offer.

With a family income of just $28,000 annually, she figured grants would cover a significant portion of the approximately $20,000 yearly bill for tuition, room and board. But all she got was a $5,000 per-year Pell Grant. She’d have to borrow the rest.

“It’s too much. They gave me a lot of loans. That’s what I want to stay away from,” said De La Rosa, who added that both she and her mother were disappointed that she wasn’t offered more help.

Over the past several weeks, De La Rosa and high school seniors everywhere have been confronted with the decision of how and where they’ll be continuing their education. For the more privileged, the process is relatively easy—choose the best school that offered them admission, order a sweatshirt, fill out the roommate questionnaire, and then eagerly anticipate one of life’s more exciting chapters.

But for many, especially those from low-income immigrant communities, it is a much more weighty decision with potentially far-reaching consequences, both financial and familial.

The expectation that a young person pay an amount similar to his or her family’s entire annual income for one year of schooling is beyond comprehension to them. Add to the burden the reality that in many immigrant families the older children are shouldered with daily responsibilities required to keep the family functioning, and it becomes clear why the choice is paralyzing for some.

The Financial Aid Maze

While there are many layers to the decision, cost is the main concern in most cases.

More than 500,000 students in the same income bracket as De La Rosa received Pell Grants. And about 20 percent received the maximum amount of $5,645. But even at the most inexpensive four-year institutions, the amount covers from just a quarter to a half of the total annual cost.

Silvia Rosales is the operations manager at Save Our Youth (SOY), a Costa Mesa-based after-school center for low-income youth that provides college preparedness and arts education. On a recent Tuesday evening, Rosales helped De La Rosa review her financial aid package. Rosales plans on calling the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) office to see if an error was made on De La Rosa’s application.

“It’s odd for me to see that low of an amount, given her grades, she’s a US citizen and what her parents make,” said Rosales.

If De La Rosa’s $5,000 grant does not increase, Erendira De La Rosa, her mother, said the best thing to do is attend Orange Coast College.

“I know she wants to go to the university,” said Erendira. “For me, pushing her on another route is difficult.”

For now, Wendy De La Rosa will continue to scout out scholarships and ask the financial aid office to reconsider the amount of grant money awarded to her. So far, the school has waived the $100 fee required of those who accept admission.

“That was my last choice: community college. I don’t want to go there,” Wendy said. “My plans were to move on, far enough to come back. I want to have that college experience and be on my own.”

Many end up foregoing that experience and cut the costs of attending a four-year university by enrolling at a campus close to home and commuting. Students in Orange County who live at home and attend Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, or UC Irvine, pay about half as much as they would if they were living on campus.

Because of these massive savings, Odalys Gomez is leaning closer to enrolling at Cal State Long Beach, which is a 26-minute drive from her family home, rather than attending UC Riverside.

“Right now, I’m trying to see what my parents can afford,” said Gomez, “You don’t want to graduate in debt.”

Comparing the two options, she said she would have to pay $11,000 out of pocket per year to dorm at UC Riverside.

Staying Close to Family

Beyond cost, second-generation immigrants have family and cultural considerations that are inconceivable to the typical Anglo student from South County.

“One hundred percent of parents” are advocating for their kids to attend college said Rosales. However, “a lot advocate for going closer to home or going to a community college. These kids are the older kids who help take care of their younger siblings.”

The cost of going to community college and living at home is roughly $10,000 a semester at Orange Coast, less than half the yearly cost at a Cal State and a quarter of the yearly cost at a UC. But national statistics show that students who begin their higher education at community college face barriers in transferring.

The tug of war between school and family priorities can be especially difficult for Latinas, said Glenda Flores, assistant professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and Sociology at University of California Irvine.

“The Latino women I talk to, they say it’s an emotional and individual sacrifice—because they’re not helping the family,” said Flores.

Beau Menchaca, a higher education specialist at Century High School said, “Sometimes our biggest obstacles for our young ladies is that they don’t want their daughters to go far away. We talk to the parents, and we let them know this is part of growing up.”

But while it is often more acute for daughters, the family pressure is also there for the sons.

Martha Vargas, who directs Santa Ana College’s transfer center, said she often witnesses families asking students to choose work over education.

“I’ve had cases where parents call me asking me when they are going to finish. They think they should be working and helping the family,” said Vargas.

Trent Casillas, a Costa Mesa resident who will attend UCLA for a master’s degree in civil engineering, waited several weeks to notify his parents about his acceptance.

“They want me to work and save up,” said Casillas. “It’s treading a thin line; you want to give back to your parents, but eventually you have to go out on your own. It’s a matter of moving into adulthood. I think my parents want me to be around my brother. Moms like to keep their kids close to the nest.”

Henry Hoang, a senior at Garden Grove High School, is deciding between Cal State Fullerton and UC Merced. But he says he will choose the school that gives him the best financial package and is closest to his mother, so he can continue to help her financially.

“Right now I’m prioritizing family,” said Hoang. “My mom has given up a lot for me—the best I can do is return is listen to her and what she thinks is best.”

Making the Choice

Despite the daunting challenges facing them, an increasing number of students are choosing to take out loans based on the evidence that workers with college degrees have lower rates of unemployment and earn roughly 50 percent more than those with only some college.

Arelly Ocampo, an Estancia high school senior who will study civil engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said, “If it does end up happening, I would [take out a loan]. Education is the best investment you can make because you can get a good job and pay it off.”

Flores said it was important for “Chicano/Latino” students to complete a four-year degree so they could act as “conduits of information” for future generations.

“Higher education is crucial for social mobility and entry into many white-collar professions for racial and ethnic minorities,” said Flores in an email.

Annette Solorio, a 29-year-old Santa Ana resident, realized this when she found herself pigeonholed while working for a decade without a college degree. In mid January, she went back to school full-time at Santa Ana College. A couple months later she was accepted to Cal State Fullerton.

But she didn’t tell her mother.

As the first in her family to attend college, Solorio was never encouraged to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Her parents prefer that she work. Solorio said her mother’s path to success was different: she arrived in Sacramento as a grape picker over three decades ago, was financially savvy, and worked laborious jobs to purchase her own business and home.

“She doesn’t see the results,” said Solorio. “For her it’s like why don’t you go work instead of wasting time in school. I want to prove her wrong and have a career. Show her it’s not for the worst, but for the better.”

Jenny Cain is a Costa Mesa-based freelance journalist. You can reach her at jnncain@gmail.com.

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