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California and the West

Cal Grants Open College Doors Wider

Education: Counselors work to spread the message about expanded aid program, which seeks to ensure that no qualified California student is excluded.

September 05, 2000|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's historic expansion of its college financial aid program is being hailed by educators as a turning point that will give poor students unprecedented access to California's colleges and universities. But for the vision to become reality, the message must reach young people who assume that their college dreams are out of reach.

College recruiters who work with disadvantaged students in California say that poor and working-class families seem to be deeply convinced that college is unaffordable. The new grants may help alleviate the problem but aren't likely to eliminate it, at least not right away.

In poorer areas of Los Angeles, for example, large numbers of high school graduates come from immigrant backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college, and many parents have little familiarity with the state's college system. "Sticker shock" can seriously dampen their college aims, said Dave Hamlett, associate director of outreach services at Cal State University.

The new $1.2-billion Cal Grant program, which Gov. Gray Davis has promised to sign, sets up by far the largest state financial aid program in the country.

It will expand the state's existing program and for the first time guarantees funding for every qualified student who applies.

For high school graduates with a 3.0 grade point average and demonstrated financial need, the state will pay the cost of fees at Cal State or University of California schools (or an ample share of the tuition at private schools).

Students with financial need and a 2.0 GPA will be given a living stipend through the first year of college, a provision designed to help them catch up at community colleges.

Up to a third of the state's high school students may eventually benefit.

The goal is to ensure that no California student, no matter how poor, is excluded from college. "It's a 'giant leap for mankind' sort of thing," said Cathy Thomas, an associate dean at USC.

Throughout the state, educators and politicians expressed a sense that, with this bill, a profound change had occurred. After many long, lean years in higher education, advocates seemed to take it as a sign that California is willing to take bold steps again: "This reinstates the California dream," said Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed.

"California is back," Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said.

But for the program to work, students must be convinced that if they work harder and aim higher, the state will make college affordable.

"One of the biggest issues will be providing accurate and adequate information to people who want to go to college," Reed said. "It will take a huge effort."

Among students at Los Angeles' Roosevelt High School, cost "is the No. 1 question and the No. 1 deterrent" to college, said Loretta Hultman, a college counselor. "It's not, 'Where should I apply?' It's, 'Where is the money going to come from?' "

Antonio Reveles, a college counselor at Bell High School, does everything but twist arms to get students to think about college--especially B and C students who don't see themselves as college material. These are precisely the kind of students the bill will target.

He encourages them to attend financial aid workshops, threatening to withhold their graduation caps and gowns if they don't, and holds nighttime workshops for parents. "You have to convince them," he said. "Not just once, but over and over."

Gustavo Buenrostro, a 17-year-old senior at Bell with a 4.1 grade-point-average, provides a window into the problem.

He is a quiet youth who loves math and rockets and who wants to go to college to be a mechanical engineer. He looks worried when asked how he plans to pay for college, and he gives noncommittal answers.

Gustavo's parents are immigrants who received little formal education in their native Mexico. They live in a tidy house in Maywood. His father recently lost his job at a machine shop. His mother, Vicky Buenrostro, seems tense and is unresponsive when asked about the subject of Gustavo's college.

She spoke in Spanish, saying that the couple want to support his college aims but can't afford to, then clammed up.

Pressed, she finally asked a question: What is the Cal State University system exactly? Then another: What is the University of California system? What's the difference? Are grants the same as student loans? Do you get money for college from companies? How do you apply?

At first, her husband wouldn't join the conversation, preferring to listen from the kitchen. But after nearly an hour of tentative questions and explanations, both parents ended up hunched over the table in a lively discussion of how they will send Gustavo to college.

Vicky Buenrostro talked about how worried they have been, and how little information she's gotten. Jesus Buenrostro seemed to be struggling to process it all. "So what one should do," he finally asked, slowly bringing a hand down on the table, "is apply to different colleges, see what money there is, and then choose one to go to?"

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