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Financing College In Tough Times Is No Easy Feat

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Robyn Gee

We heard last week that the number of people living in poverty is the highest it's been in 40 years. For young people living in low-income situations, funding college can seem impossible. We spoke with a financial aid officer recently, who said parents and students who have lost their jobs are scrambling to apply for more financial aid. And with budget cuts that threaten faculty, facilities, and students, it would be easy to let the dream of college dissolve.

De Ashla Miller from Oakland, CA refused to let financial troubles get in the way of college. She knew she wanted to go to college since her first day in high school. Miller's mom pushed her to pursue this dream, but couldn't support her financially. “One time we tried for the Parent Plus Loan but that wasn’t able to go through because she just wasn’t credit-worthy... I knew I could do it on my own and I did,” said Miller. So Miller funded the entire tuition of Holy Names University (practically equal to that of Stanford's tuition) on merit-based scholarships and a grant from the East Bay College Fund (EBCF), a pretty extraordinary accomplishment.

EBCF is an organization focused on college success, instead of college access -- meaning they stick with scholarship grantees throughout their four years of college. The scholarships are meant for low-income students. If they are granted a scholarship from EBCF, the student receives $4,000 each year, financial training, and a mentor that stays with them through college.

Diane Dodge, the director of EBCF, said that knowing how to ask for financial assistance from colleges can be tricky, but it is essential that students don’t take “No” for an answer. “The first thing you want to say is, thank you so much for what you have given me, it means so much, explain how excited you are to go to school, if you have a nice GPA it’s good to drop that...After they say, ‘We don’t have any more support,’ a lot of people would hang up. The important thing to do then is say, ‘Is there any way I can make an appeal? I really appreciate what you’re doing, I’m just not sure I can afford school,’” said Dodge.

She also recommends framing the situation differently. “I like to say, ‘If you were me, or if I was your daughter, and we were in this circumstance, what would you tell me I might consider?’...The problem is that we don’t always know what’s out there. We want to find that out in a way where they’re advocating on your side,” said Dodge. Miller had the grades to get the aid she needed, but it wasn't a piece of cake. She currently receives public assistance, but hopes to change that, which is why she took a job as a receptionist at Kaiser Hospital on top of her full course load. 

On top of all that, during her third year of college, Miller became pregnant. Her due date was a week before finals. But little Kimora came a week late. “I had a final that day, and I had a final the next day. I left against doctor’s orders to finish my finals... I was like you know what, I have a final and I’m going to finish it, so I left against doctor’s orders went and finished my final and went right back to the hospital with my daughter,” said Miller. “When I tell people at school, they’re like, 'Oh my God, you’re nuts,' but I was just determined. I didn’t want a semester’s worth of work to go down the drain,” she said. Miller most likely benefited from choosing a small, private university instead of a big California State University, because all of her professors knew her by name, and knew about her situation. However, the difference is tens of thousands of dollars, a choice that isn’t available to everyone.

Miller’s determination to finish school guides her life. There was no question about returning to school after she had her daughter. “Everyone was like, ‘We think next semester you should just take off.’ I’m like, ‘Um, the baby’s here, why would I do something like that?” she said. At the same time, she would love to be spending more time with her daughter, who is about to turn two. “I can’t do homework at home at all. I have to do it at school or at Starbucks,” said Miller. “When I see her it gives me all the more power and determination to do what I have to do,” she said. Halfway through college, Miller decided to change her major from nursing to psychology and criminology, and now has to stay for a fifth year.

She lost her Cal Grant which was almost $10,000 and had to come up with that money by applying for more scholarships. Dodge said that because of the budget cuts colleges face, they offer fewer classes, so even if a student has a fully-funded ride to college, they might not get the classes they need to complete their major. To account for the potential fifth year, EBCF maps out a plan during a student’s sophomore year, and if it looks possible that they might have to go for an extra semester or year, they divide their scholarship award across those years to help with financial support.

And according to Dodge, the fifth year is the most critical. “There are financial issues that come up, there’s the stress of having to go into the real world, and there’s a layer of, wow, I’m successful now,” said Dodge. Despite all the tricky circumstances, Miller is excited to be graduating. She wants her daughter to have an easier time of affording higher education, because college is going to be on her “to-do list,” according to Miller. But what happens when you don’t have Miller’s extraordinary perseverance and goal-oriented mindset to not take “No” for an answer? What if you don’t receive an EBCF scholarship? Many young people are finding out, as Dodge said they had 300 applicants this year and could only give out 30 new scholarships.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI):

Strain On College Financial Aid With More People In Poverty

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org