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Free money offered for college

Weekend workshops in L.A. County will educate families on applying for state-funded Cal Grants.

February 09, 2007|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

Free money -- up to $9,700 in state aid per student -- should help motivate California high school seniors facing fast-approaching college financial aid deadlines, state officials said Thursday.

Cal Grants, state-funded grants for California residents that don't need to be repaid, are guaranteed to all students who apply before the March 2 deadline and have a minimum grade point average of 2.0. The amount can be as much as $9,700 a year, and the grant is renewable annually.

In an effort to encourage more students to apply, more than 50 "Cash for College" workshops will be held this weekend in Los Angeles County, state financial aid officials said at a news conference Thursday.

The Cash for College campaign will hold more than 300 workshops throughout California before the Cal Grant deadline. Students and parents can find their closest workshop site by visiting www.calgrants.org and entering their ZIP Code, city or county.

Another key website with information is www.fafsa.ed.gov. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the main financial aid form for students nationwide.

For the first time this year, tech-savvy students can sign up for free text message reminders of the Cal Grant deadline by sending a text message to the number 49700. The number refers to the maximum Cal Grant award.

At the workshops, students and their parents will be able to get free counseling from financial aid experts on how to fill out the federal aid form and the Cal Grant GPA Verification form, the only documents needed to apply for a Cal Grant.

The California Student Aid Commission, along with various local school administrators and elected officials, talked up the workshops to a group of 50 high school seniors at a Thursday morning news conference at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex near downtown Los Angeles.

"We want to get your attention with the money," said City Council President Eric Garcetti. "But what's more important is what you want to do with your life. With a degree, you can help make that choice."

Janelle Hartley is one of the new College Cash Crew members who talk to students one-on-one at workshops about how the Cal Grant helped them pay for college.

Hartley, a half-Mexican, half-black immigrant from Mexico who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, is a first-generation college student who graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills. She is a public relations executive specializing in socially themed marketing to minority groups.

"My mother told me, 'It's not your circumstances that make you who you are; it's what you make of your circumstances that counts,' " Hartley said.

Cal Grants can be used to attend all California public colleges and most private and independent colleges. They also can be used for career schools offering such programs as nursing, fashion design and culinary arts.

The state Student Aid Commission, which oversees the Cal Grant program, reported that it offered nearly $900 million in grants to 290,000 eligible students for the 2006-07 academic year.

But officials worry that many of the 370,000 students expected to graduate from high school this year won't take advantage of the Cal Grant program.

"There are literally hundreds of millions of student aid dollars that goes lying unused on the table," said David Rattray, vice president of Education & Workforce Development for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "It's a shame to see it wasted."

California ranks 40th in the nation for high school students going directly to college and could sink lower, according to an October 2006 Cal State Sacramento study. The proportion of California high school graduates enrolling directly in colleges dropped from 61% in 1995 to 52% in 2005, the study found.

Rattray said Cal Grants are a good source of support for students struggling financially, adding that the annual federal Pell Grant amount hasn't increased lately and that high interest rates discourage some students from taking out loans. Some relief on interest rates could come from Congress.

The House last month approved a bill that would gradually cut interest rates for all new borrowers who had federally subsidized Stafford loans. Under the legislation, rates on new loans would be decreased gradually, to 6.12% this year and to 3.4% in 2011.

In the Senate, the Education Committee is considering a different proposal that would increase Pell Grants and alleviate the burden on borrowers. Rather than change interest rates, it would adjust a borrower's payments according to his income level.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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