College can't insulate students from economic crisis

  • November 21, 2008

By Matt Krupnick
Contra Costa Times
Article Launched: 11/08/2008

Like other students in the new world of debt and financial hardship, Darla Tuning has had a tough time affording college.

The 42-year-old Oakland resident has balanced her Cal State East Bay education with a smorgasbord of stress: a husband laid off from IndyMac who is working four musician jobs to make ends meet, three children with costly music lessons and the possibility her bachelor's degree in music education will not help her land a job.

"There are times I ask whether it's worth it, if I'm putting my family through too much," she said. "But I've worked so hard for so long. Everybody wants me to finish."

It's akin to the stressful dilemmas challenging students everywhere as the economy falls apart around the usually insulated walls of higher-education institutions.

Some have parents dealing with a foreclosure who suddenly cannot pay their children's college bills. Others have trouble qualifying for private loans.

International students, seeking a prized degree from U.S. universities, are seeing inflation devalue loans secured in their home countries. Combined with the trouble finding jobs here, thousands of California students from around the world could have to make tough decisions soon.

"I wouldn't be surprised if many international students were forced to take a quarter off," said Udeepto Maheshwari, student body president at Cal State East Bay and a native of India. Maheshwari said he has watched the value of his Indian loans dwindle this year.

Several Bay Area colleges have taken steps to help students feeling financial pressure.

At Mills College in Oakland, administrators last week announced they would provide emergency loans to cover the costs of students with unexpected troubles. The school was startled recently by a surge of students whose families suddenly could not afford college costs.

"I have never seen so many foreclosure statements," said David Gin, the Mills administrator who handles financial aid. "In this one year, I have seen more than in my 10 years (in the job) combined."

St. Mary's College in Moraga started working more closely with students this fall after the number of late tuition payments doubled. The problem took the college by surprise, said Michael Beseda, a St. Mary's vice president.

"We didn't really track this stuff very well before," he said. "Students weren't having this kind of trouble paying their bills on time."

Bay Area institutions experienced a surge in financial-aid applications this fall, only partly explained by enrollment increases. Several saw boosts of about 20 percent, including Cal State East Bay, UC Berkeley, Diablo Valley College and Laney College.

With the economy's severe problems, it is important for families to know their financial-aid options, said Edie Irons, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley-based Project on Student Debt.

"We definitely feel that there are adequate resources through federal loans and grants for most families to pay for college," she said. "Really, the big problem everyone is facing is with every other part of the economy."

Life's day-to-day expenses have been the main problem for Tuning, the Cal State East Bay student who hopes to finish her degree next year. She has cleaned music studios in exchange for discounts of her daughters' lessons.

When IndyMac, the failed bank, laid off her husband, Tuning went to the university's financial-aid office for help. The school helped her gather about $8,000 in federal aid, allowing her to continue her education.

More than 800 admitted students and their parents attended a series of one-hour aid workshops on the Hayward campus in March, said Rhonda Johnson, Cal State East Bay's financial-aid director.

"Some people even brought their tax returns," she recalled. "There's definitely been an increase in awareness about financial aid."

Although some students - particularly in the humanities - always have wondered how they would find a relevant job after graduation, the latest financial crisis has increased the concern. At Mills, more students are asking counselors about the marketability of their majors, and alumnae of the women's school want help updating resumes, said Kate Dey, the college's director of career services.

The crisis "is in the media, everywhere they look," she said. "I've been telling them, 'this is not a time to sit back and let things come to you.'"

Reach Matt Krupnickat 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Increases in Bay Area college federal-aid applications
School Percent increase 2007-08 to 2008-09
CSU East Bay 22.6
Cal Maritime 4.8
San Francisco State 17.9
San Jose State 20
Chabot 17.1
Contra Costa 14.1
Diablo Valley 19.4
Laney 19
Merritt 17
St. Mary's 6.2
UC Berkeley 19.7
Source: U.S. Department of Education


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