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College Aid Opens Doors

January 25, 2003

Next Saturday, Los Angeles civic leaders will launch a massive economic development project -- one high school senior at a time.

Hundreds of volunteers from City Hall, schools, universities, local businesses, labor unions and nonprofit groups will be at the Los Angeles Unified School District's 49 high schools to help students from low-income families apply for state-funded college financial aid. In doing so, they will be helping not just individual students but their city.

Education levels and poverty rates have an inverse relationship: A good education means little chance of poverty, and vice versa. Los Angeles is the vice versa: One in 10 adults has less than six years of schooling. With a population fueled by immigration from poor regions of Mexico and Central America where schools are scarce and money scarcer, it is the least educated and poorest of any major U.S. urban area.

In earlier eras, those without a college degree or even a high school diploma could work their way up into well-paying blue-collar jobs. But today those jobs have mostly disappeared, and many new immigrants, often undocumented, end up "off the books" as day laborers and nannies or in poor-paying restaurant or garment industry jobs.

Seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the region -- including retail sales clerk and security guard -- pay less than $25,000 a year, with no benefits. No wonder the taxpayer-funded county health department, which provides health care for people with no insurance, is on the verge of collapse.

The Feb. 1 Free Cash for College Day, spearheaded by Mayor James K. Hahn and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, won't help today's low-paid workers, but it could help their children, boosting the city's economy and overall quality of life.

Every high school student in California who has at least a C average and can show financial need is eligible for a state-funded scholarship called a Cal Grant. But much of the money that the state Legislature set aside for this entitlement program gets left on the table, especially in L.A., because students and their families don't know about it or don't know how to fill out the application, which is as tortuous as any tax form.

"If your parents didn't go to college, you don't know what hoops to jump through. You don't even know where the hoops are," says Thomas J. Kane, a UCLA professor of policy studies and economics whose research is behind the citywide effort. Next Saturday, hundreds of hoopmeisters will be on hand to point the way.

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To Take Action: To find the nearest LAUSD high school and to register or volunteer for Free Cash for College Day, go to www.la freecashforcollege.org or call (213) 978-0721.

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