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Needy Freshmen Struggle for Aid

Two youths, the first in their families to go to college, meet a foreign world with little help.

March 07, 2004|Steve Giegerich | Associated Press Writer

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — As long as they've known each other -- from their days in middle school to their freshman year at Kutztown University -- Victor Nivar and Danny Hernandez have also known financial hardship.

It's what landed them in the Bethlehem housing project where Victor met Danny in 1996. Danny's family had already lived there for years; Victor's moved to eastern Pennsylvania in the wake of his father's slaying in the Bronx.

With strong family ties that put the needs of parents and siblings over their own, neither young man saved for college. Instead, they started working as teenagers and helped pay household expenses.

It was only natural, then, that tight finances followed Danny and Victor once they decided to take on another financial burden, becoming the first in their families to attend college.

Now roommates, each of them has woken up at night, sweating over how to pay for this school year -- let alone three more.

"I try not to think about it," Victor said. "But it's always there."

Neither Victor nor Danny knew much about college financing, so both filled out their aid forms late -- last summer, before starting school in the fall. When they did, Danny got a rude shock.

Applying the federally mandated formula used by Kutztown and other schools to determine aid, he discovered that, by working nearly full time at an auto parts store, he had bumped his family's overall income past the threshold that qualified him for a full assistance package.

"In essence, the system is telling the student to stop working so they can qualify for full financial aid," said Ulysses Connor, director of student services at Kutztown. "But if he stops working, then it hurts the family situation because he's contributing to the family welfare."

To Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst with the Council for Opportunity in Education, Danny's naivete about the college application process fits a pattern among first-generation students.

"These kids are just as smart as the rich kids," he said. "They just don't know how the game is played.

"Most of what they read about college is about football or basketball teams. They have no idea at all about what the academic experience is for students because no one in their family or community ever went to college."

Citing census figures, Mortenson has submitted research to Congress contending that college-bound Latinos -- typically coming from families with about half the earning power of non-Latino whites -- do not receive a fair share of financial aid.

Experts say a communication breakdown on the part of the federal government, schools and parents is partly to blame. First-generation students, they say, are often unaware of financial aid opportunities.

"Essentially, we wind up victimizing the victims," said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Assn. of Colleges and Universities

"It's a sad commentary that we're a society that prizes itself on being open and supportive of people who want to prove themselves. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of financial aid, we're not doing that."

It was after the fall semester classes began -- and they had a chance to interact with other students -- that Victor and Danny realized that many of their classmates had started working on their financial aid packages early to midway through their senior year in high school.

"We were late, I know that," Victor said. "I'm not pointing any fingers, but now we know how it works. And we'll make the best of it."

Danny's financial difficulties were compounded by his inability to raise $2,000 to cover the cost of tuition for a preparatory summer school session. Kutztown wouldn't accept him as a full-time student unless he went to the session.

The resulting debt saddled Danny with $5,000 in outstanding student loans by the end of the first semester. Two months later, he still bristled at the finance officer who suggested that he attend a two-year school instead.

"I thought to myself, 'I know I can make it here; why do I need to go to a community college?' " said Danny, who finished the fall term with a solid "B" average.

Danny's student loans were partially paid off in January by a benefactor who read about Victor and Danny's first year in college, but they still alarmed Connor, Kutztown's head of student services.

"That's way too much debt during his first year," he said, "especially when, under normal circumstances, he would have full eligibility for financial aid."

Meanwhile, Victor also fretted about finances -- primarily a delayed partial scholarship that he needed to pay Kutztown nearly $10,800 for annual tuition, room and board.

And it quickly became clear in other ways how much the roommates lagged behind other students economically.

Nearly 80% of Kutztown students bring personal computers or laptops to campus, but not Danny and Victor. The first-floor computer lab in their residence hall fills the gap while they're at school.

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