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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tantalus' Reach: Luis Goes to College

If you've been reading my posts for a while, you've probably determined that success, as it is normally defined in education, is a rarity in my program. It is rare, but it does happen and Luis is a success.

Luis is going to college.

He's been asking for help with his FAFSA and EOP. He's been coming to school with his pockets stuffed with forms and envelopes each morning -- he used to carry a backpack, but when his bike got stolen he couldn't make the four-mile walk to school in the dark with a backpack without getting robbed.

So all his forms are folded in squares.

Today he was doing his EOP questionnaire, which asks him to explain his financial situation. He started his answer like this:

We are poor. Not just "don't get to go out to dinner once a week" poor, but "might not get dinner at all" poor. We are poor.

Like everybody else around here, he's poor. The thing that he doesn't put on his form is that he's a recovering crack addict who's been clean now for almost a year. It doesn't make it onto the application because when it asks for extra-curricular activities, he chose to put band and church instead.

But he's college bound now and is an exciting success for all of us who've worked with him over the years. He's applying to California State University schools and will most likely be accepted -- which makes him one of the lucky ones in so many ways.

As a society, we are quick to tell students that they must go to college and it's true -- students who attain a college degree are more likely to be employed, less likely to depend on government assistance, and will have an average lifetime earnings benefit of $1,000,000 over their non-college educated peers.

But it is quickly becoming Tantalus' Fruit.

You see, this year California public high schools will push another 350,000 graduates out of the nest. Luis is in direct competition with 349,999 other students who are all trying to come up with a viable plan for the coming year.

Imagine if the entire population of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had to completely change their lives between June and September.

And most of them, like Luis, are going to try and go to college.

There will be spaces for only the top 35,000 of these students in the University of California system. These ones will have to come up with an average of $30,000 per year to pay for their education, room and board.

There will be spaces for another 56,000 of them in the CSU's -- which make them overcrowded and make it difficult for students to get the classes they need. A four year college career, for many of them, is a thing of the past. But even so, a crowded CSU beats the other alternatives, so these ones will come up with an average of $16,000 to pay for education, room and board.

And the other less lucky or less well-prepared or less well-motivated or less well-situated 265,000 newly minted graduates are going to have to find a job, do nothing, join the military, start at the community colleges or succumb to the syron song of the For-Profit Loan Harvesters.

There are very few jobs.

The military is downsizing.

So most will try and squeeze into one of the 100 community colleges that dot California.

Graduates plan. God Laughs.

Tantalus' Fruit. That's what we're offering because classes are full. Programs are packed to the gills. Here in California, there are nearly 2.5 million students enrolled either full or part time in our 100 community colleges and 41% of them are competing for the bottleneck classes necessary for associates degrees and transfer programs.

The upshot? A two year program is no longer two years. A full course load (necessary for maintaining a subsidized loan) is often impossible to arrange.

Completion rates are dropping.

The For-Profit Loan Harvesters are stepping in to profit off the damage.

And the student loans just keep coming due.

If Luis were the average student, he would need to borrow nearly $70,000 to pay for college if he goes to a CSU -- which I'm hoping he will -- and he will have no money from home and no home to commute from. But he's not normal -- he's Luis and I'm sure he'll find a way to scrape by with much less.

And I am thrilled for him. The next four years will cost him more than his family has earned in the last eight, but Luis is determined and that's enough for me to believe that he's going to make it.

And I don't mention my worries about how much he's going to owe when he's through.


  1. congratulations - YAY Luis

    1. Costa, you should know that Antioch College is offering a liberal arts education tuition free for students entering in the next 3 years or so. Only cost is room and board at about $9,000. It's not yet accredited but it will be and it has a long history of producing fine citizens, some famous. Check it out at

      Barrie, a friend of your mom and Robin