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Their Decision to Attend College Was Elementary

March 21, 2004|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

At 9 years old, back when he was still a pudgy fifth-grader, Luis Gaona Jr. made a pretty savvy move.

Along with about 7,000 other fifth-graders in Riverside County, Gaona promised the folks at Riverside Community College during a program called Passport to College that he would graduate from high school and go to college. In exchange, the college pledged to pay the fees for every one of those students who enrolled at RCC.

On Saturday, about 300 of those students returned to campus to collect on that promise.

"Going to college is going to be ... work, it's going to be hard work," said RCC President Salvatore Rotella, at a ceremony. "Your parents, your community, we all made an investment in you, and you all have a job to do."

Gaona barely remembers the original ceremony in the fall of 1996, when 23 busloads of students and parents from across the county came to the campus pledging their commitment to higher education. But with the high cost of college, Gaona is glad he signed his Passport to College contract.

He earned good grades at John W. North High School in Riverside and has been accepted at Cal State Chico, Fresno State and Dominican University of California. But tuition at those four-year colleges would put a financial strain on his parents, a manager at a chocolate factory and a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. He plans on going to RCC for two years to lessen the burden on his parents, he said.

"I'd pictured myself at a four-year school, but then I realized there's so much money involved," said Gaona, a 17-year-old senior. "I just want to get my education. I don't care how long it takes."

Gaona and approximately 60% of Passport to College participants will be the first in their families to attend college.

Fees and housing costs at Cal State campuses range from $12,000 to $18,000 a year. The costs of being a full-time student at a community college runs about $430 a year. That cost might rise from $18 to $26 a unit, depending on the upcoming state budget.

Since its inception, the program has strove to increase the county's low college attendance rate by encouraging students to study hard and by teaching parents that college is within their financial reach, said Amy Cardullo, director of the Riverside Community College Foundation office.

"Many parents didn't even have that vision for their children -- not because they didn't want the best for them, but because they thought it was too expensive," Cardullo said. "They didn't want to disappoint their child."

So a decade ago, Rotella and superintendents from various Riverside County school districts decided to do something about the low number of the county's eligible high school students who went on to college. At the time, the county's college attendance rate was 31%, far below the state rate of 52%. Latino attendance was even lower, at 24%.

"It was one of those things that just hit you in the face," Rotella said. "Something was wrong."

Citing educational studies that said children's lifetime choices begin at an early age, educators set their sights on the county's fifth-graders, and joined forces with local elementary schools to take the stay-in-school message to the next level. It was no longer enough that the school districts worked to get them through high school, Rotella said. They would now be expected to go on to college.

"The uniqueness is in trying to condition a community to learning that education is not a luxury," Rotella said. "Our objective was to sensitize the community to think of college as part of life."

To pay for the program, the Riverside Community College District Foundation was able to raise $1.5 million from local business owners, developers and residents. The money has been sitting in a bank, earning interest and waiting for the Class of 2004.

In 1996, when proponents were still introducing the idea to parents, there were 11,200 eligible fifth-graders from six unified school districts throughout Riverside County. In the end, 6,800 students from Alvord, Corona-Norco, Jurupa, Moreno Valley, Riverside and Val Verde school districts signed up for the program. If they graduated on time within any of those districts, they would get free tuition and fees at RCC.

Through the years, the students took tours of the RCC campus, talked to professionals in their fields of interest and were expected to set personal and career goals. Their parents attended informational sessions held in English and Spanish.

"To use the governor's favorite word, it's fantastic," said Debbie Dunams, whose daughter Daniela is a program participant. "They started talking about college before they even got out of elementary school. It just has to start there."

Since the program's inception, several local four-year colleges such as UC Riverside, Cal Baptist University, La Sierra College, the University of Redlands and Loma Linda University have offered $1,500 to $5,000 scholarships to students who transfer from RCC.

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