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BHS Students Navigate Intricacies of Paying for Higher Education

With admission into colleges comes a new challenge that many students are facing: the often exorbitant amount of money they’ll have to pay.

“I’m on the wealthier side of people. We live in Berkeley, in the Bay Area, and if my family still feels like we can’t afford 90 percent of colleges, then there’s a problem with the system,” remarked Felix Mousigian, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS) in Berkeley International High School (BIHS).

Like many things, the inflation of college and university tuition has been steadily climbing, but over the last 20 years, the increase has become striking. According to a US News article, the average tuition and fees at private national universities have jumped 144 percent, out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 165 percent, and in-state tuition and fees at public national universities have grown the most by increasing 212 percent — all since 2001.

In relation to rising tuitions, Erick Barrera Yoc, a BHS senior in Academic Choice (AC), said, “I think schools having an extremely high tuition rate is ridiculous because it makes them seem like a business and almost defeats their purpose. If you’re paying more money to go there than you’re gonna end up making after you graduate, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Barrera Yoc’s sentiments are widely shared and, with college tuition reaching a rate unaffordable for many blue-collar families, the importance of attainable scholarships and financial aid has become further heightened. This is the case for Mousigian, whose college choices were predominantly determined by financial aid options, as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) estimated a possible family contribution that was much less than most colleges were expecting him to pay. 

In order to determine how much aid to offer applicants, most schools use the College Scholarship Service (CSS), which is based on parental income and estimates how much your family can contribute. For Mousigian, this includes his father, mother, and step-father. However, in his case, the estimate was two to two and a half times what his family was actually able to contribute. Consequently, Mousigian was forced to apply solely to schools that looked at his FAFSA profile, which had a lower estimate, or his CSS profile based on the income of one household.

Mousigian reflected, “Personally, the list of schools I thought I would apply to in sophomore and junior year, compared to the schools I actually applied to in senior year, [was] vastly different. Only the UCs overlapped between where I thought I would apply and where I did — solely because of how much I didn’t understand financial aid or the situation I would end up in.”

Similarly, Barrera Yoc struggled with the financial aid system, as his parents’ income made him ineligible for significant aid — despite the fact that the amount they are able to contribute is much lower than most tuition. He stated, “I wasn’t expecting to get much government financial aid because my parents make above a certain bracket, which is usually what decides whether people really need financial aid. But they have four kids, three other siblings that have to go to college, so they can only afford to give me so much money.”

Fernanda Padilla Colin, a BHS senior in AC, has also struggled with the financial aspect of college. She stated, “Cost is definitely one of the biggest deciders for people when picking colleges — especially if you’re a low-income student. For me, I knew that my parents couldn’t put a single penny towards my education, so I had to figure it out myself, and, by junior year, I started thinking about how I was gonna pay and what jobs I needed to get.” 

Padilla Colin also said that financial planning was an additional stressor in an already stressful year. “On top of applying for college, you have this extra pressure of paying for college, and thinking about, ‘If I go in debt for this, will I be able to pay it back after I graduate?’”

That pressure is what prompted Padilla Colin to apply to the QuestBridge Match scholarship program. In the program, low-income students apply by filling out the common application, ranking colleges that partner with the QuestBridge nonprofit, and, if matched and admitted, receive full, four-year scholarships free of student loans. Through QuestBridge, Padilla Colin was admitted early to Rice University with a full-ride scholarship, alleviating much of her financial stress.

When reflecting on her feelings surrounding her acceptance, Padilla Colin remarked, “It feels amazing. College in general is a big worry, but I worried about paying for college even more, so knowing that I’m going to be able to go to the university that I want without having to pay a single dollar feels very rewarding.”

Although full-ride scholarships are much more difficult to obtain, receiving financial aid directly from colleges is another great way to get financial assistance. By determining the colleges he wanted to apply to based on their financial aid programs, Mousigian was able to receive offers of significant financial aid from both Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.

Mousigian stated, “It felt good to know that I’m getting money from schools, and I’m happy with the amount of aid I received. Drexel is a private school that normally has a pretty big tuition, but they offered me enough money that the cost [ends up being] equal to, or even less than, what it would cost me to go to a UC — which is around the most my family can afford. It’s pretty cool to have the opportunity to attend a private school without having to pay that extra money.”

Barrera Yoc also received financial aid packages from several schools. However, because of the financial limitations within his family, many schools are still out of the picture. He considers one flaw of financial aid programs to be equal access for students of all financial backgrounds. Barrera Yoc stated, “I don’t think financial aid is easily accessible to all students. For kids like me, who are around lower-middle-class, I feel like aid falls short because their parents make a certain amount of money, but they still don’t have enough money that choosing a college isn’t determined by what they can afford.”

Another flaw with many financial aid packages is the automatic inclusion of student loans, which can leave students in crippling debt after graduation. For Mousigian, the automatic inclusion in his financial-aid packages of student loans and work-study, in which students work for the school in some way while attending, presented some difficulties, as he was unsure if either were the right choices for him. However, he remarked, “I do understand it can be super difficult for colleges to find a fair process to create financial packages — even for one student — and they end up doing it for millions of applicants a year.”

Conversely, Padilla Colin feels the main issue for QuestBridge and other programs like it is exposure, as not nearly enough students are aware of them. Padilla Colin stated, “There’s a lot of [scholarship programs], which is amazing, but, a lot of the time, the outreach that the programs do just isn’t enough — meaning a lot of students aren’t given the opportunity to apply when they should be.”

Despite these issues, scholarship programs and financial aid are one of the main reasons that higher education — especially at prestigious universities — remains somewhat accessible. With tuition constantly on the rise, paying full price out of pocket is an impossibility for most families and, even with financial aid, many students are forced to rely on student loans. Sharing information on obtainable financial assistance and getting students the help they need to pay for their college education needs to become a greater priority for high schools. Without proper education, many students will fall victim to the debt that often accompanies unmanageable student loans and lose their financial freedom before they’ve gained it.

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