‘We were so overwhelmed:’ the confusing, daunting prospect of paying for college

TWIN FALLS — First, students played a low-stakes game of Bingo. Competing for college swag — shirts and Frisbees and Chapstick — they learned about subsidized student loans, unsubsidized loans and other financial aid jargon.

At the day’s end, when students gathered in a college gym, the stakes were higher. Scholarships from Idaho and Oregon colleges were on the line. Recipients took the stage to accept their awards, to loud applause that echoed a basketball game or volleyball match.

Both scenes, from a recent Hispanic student summit at the College of Southern Idaho, fit a common theme. The overriding goal was to make college finance a little less confusing, and a little less daunting.

In Idaho, it is impossible to confront the issues of college enrollment, and college completion, without staring squarely into the eye of affordability. In a rural state where campuses are often faraway and poverty is a constant presence, college affordability is not merely a factor. It is often the factor.

In several recent rankings, Idaho lands in the Top 10 for college affordability. With an average tuition of $7,590, Idaho’s four-year schools rank seventh-lowest in the nation, according to the College Board. Tuition accounts for about a third of the revenue in Idaho’s higher education system, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association; here again, Idaho ranks seventh-lowest in the nation.

Not all the trends are good. Adjusted for inflation, Idaho college costs have gone up 11 percent in five years. The national increase is 7 percent. Idaho’s increases come in the wake of the Great Recession, when lawmakers slashed higher education budget and continued, incrementally, a policy of shifting higher education costs to students and their parents.

This year, Idaho’s college and university system will receive $296 million in general fund tax dollars, and collect $265 million in fees and tuition. Over the past decade, general fund spending for higher education has increased by 12 percent — while tuition and fee collections have increased by 155 percent.

By no means was Idaho alone in this regard. In a June report, the Penn Graduate School of Education leveled a blunt, across-the-board criticism. “Balancing state budgets by cutting higher education is not a formula for increasing the knowledge and skills of the population.”

To the contrary, the report said, schools catering to first-generation, minority and low-income students “must receive the resources needed to ensure student success.”

Which brings us back to Idaho Hispanics — the state’s largest ethnic minority, comprising nearly 18 percent of the student population.

Hispanic students aren’t turning their back on college. For the class of 2017, 42 percent of Hispanic graduates went straight to college, according to the State Board of Education. For white students, the go-on rate was 46 percent — higher, but only by 4 percentage points. But when it comes to postsecondary completion rates, the gap balloons to a whopping 26 percentage points, according to the State Board.

Somewhere between enrollment and graduation, something happens.

It’s an all-too familiar story for J.J. Saldana of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. Too many Hispanics drop out of college as sophomores or juniors. Too often, he said, the explanation is offhand: “Life happens.”

And often, that’s code language for affordability.

For Lucia Carbajal, learning to navigate college finances was an education in itself.

In 2013, Carbajal was preparing to graduate from Weiser High School, her sights set on Arizona State University’s honors college. Her parents hadn’t set aside a college fund — and since they hadn’t gone to college themselves, they didn’t know very much about how to pay. “It was very intimidating,” she said. “We were so overwhelmed.”

Carbajal learned what she could from websites. One of Weiser’s advisers urged Carbajal to apply for every scholarship she could find. Little by little, sometimes $200 at a time, the scholarships added up, and she was able to go out-of-state and graduate debt-free. Carbajal is attending medical school — and is prepared now to take on loans.

Not every student is as resourceful or persistent. That’s where Monzerrath Stark tries to step in.

As the University of Idaho’s associate director for multicultural admissions, Stark spends a lot of her time meeting with students and parents to demystify college finances. That means attending events such as Twin Falls’ Hispanic student summit. That means hitting the road with her U of I colleagues for ¡Avanza! (named for the Spanish word for “move forward”). From Fruitland to Idaho Falls, the events bring students and parents together with admissions and financial aid advisers, allowing a student to fill out a college application and a Free Application for Federal Student Aid in one night.

As a first-generation graduate herself — and the first of four sisters to attend the U of I — Stark knows the process is daunting. As the oldest child in her family, she had to talk her father into the idea of four-year college.

Stark also knows many students wrestle with the politics of 2018. Children of undocumented immigrants are afraid to submit personal information, for fear that their parents could be deported. (For this reason, among others, Idaho’s FAFSA completion rates are among the lowest in the nation.)

But she hears one more basic recurring concern, one that has little to do with the complexity of immigration law. Too many students and their parents believe college is unaffordable, or not worth the cost. At every event and every opportunity, Stark tries to allay their concerns. But she says it will take additional advisers, and more outreach, to make meaningful headway toward Idaho’s lofty postsecondary completion goals.

“It’s getting to know their story, because we’re not going to force anything on them.”

This series, at a glance

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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