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Created: 11 September, 2009
Updated: 16 August, 2023

What Students of Color Are Doing to Stay in College During the Recession


 Daniel Santana has his heart set on being a teacher in his hometown of Lynwood, Calif., which has a large low-income Latino community. To pursue this, Santana, who is 19, has worked two jobs since he started at California State University, Northridge, and like many students he’s also relied on financial aid. As the first in his family to go to college, he has been on course.

 But now his goals are in jeopardy.

 Last year, Santana’s financial aid was reduced by $2,000, and because of the state’s budget priorities that disadvantage poor people even more, he might not be able to get the classes he needs to graduate on time. To get around the second hurdle, he had hoped to take classes at East Los Angeles Community College this summer. But the second sessions of classes were canceled.

 Santana is afraid now that his two jobs (at a local swap meet and an internship with a student organization) might not be enough to cover his school expenses this coming academic year, which would force him to look for a third job in a dismal economy for working-class people.

 “I thought I was going to graduate in five years, but now I’m thinking it might take me six,” said Santana, who is a Chicana/o studies and history major.

 Like many students of color, Santana has faced institutional barriers to education in the past, and the current economic strategy of bailing out the rich at the expense of the poor is only exacerbating his struggle.

 As California faces a $26 billion deficit, the state’s public universities and colleges are confronting massive budget cuts, and students are expected to pay a 30 percent increase in fees.

 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating the Cal Grants program that awards aid to low-income students, and due to the budget shortfall 10,000 students were denied admission to Cal State universities last year. There is talk of further increasing fees and reducing admissions by 32,000 students in the coming years. This would be the equivalent of losing one of the larger Cal State campuses.

 All of this is expected to have an acute impact on education along race lines. Cal State is the nation’s largest four-year university system; 24 percent of its students are Latino, 17 percent are Asian and 6 percent are black.

 “This crisis speaks to the economic situation that people of color find themselves in every day,” said Jarad Sanchez, the education coordinator at Alliance for a Better Community, a Latino advocacy organization based in the Pico Union area of Los Angeles. “They are the first to get hit the hardest and suffer the longest.”

 As the state continues to cut higher education, dreams are crushed, said Sanchez, adding that “rejection letters are coming in higher numbers these days, not because students are not qualified, but because it is becoming more competitive to get into (the state colleges and universities). There is less money and less space.”

 Some educators fear what this could mean for the future of these schools.

 “What we are seeing is the start of a new CSU, one that is whiter and middle-class, and a denial of access of black and brown faces, and also Asians and Native Americans,” said Kim Geron, an assistant professor at Cal State, East Bay, and vice president of the California Faculty Association. He added that the lack of funding in higher education is negatively impacting the quality of education that students pay for. “Students are paying more for less,” he said.

 The Cal State system is also imposing furloughs (fewer hours) on professors as another way to fill the gap in the budget. Geron said this measure will make it even harder for students to get the classes they need to graduate because there will be fewer classes offered.

 “Some students who normally would have gone to UC or CSU might be pushed down to community colleges because there’s no room at the universities, or because fees are too high,” Steve Boilard, higher education director at the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento, wrote in an e-mail. “But students may (have) a hard time getting the classes they need, due to budget cuts at community colleges.”

 And it’s a tough labor market students will face if and when they finally do obtain a higher degree.

 According to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California, the state will not have enough highly educated workers by 2025. Forty-one percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 35 percent of the work force will have one, creating a skills gap shortfall of about one million college graduates.

 “It is more difficult for California to get out of the crisis when there [are] not enough skilled workers, and students are denied access or are dropping out because fees are too high,” said Geron. “That is Cali-fornia’s dilemma.”

 The meltdown, though, has driven some students to become politically active and mobilize against these threats not only to their personal goals but also to the wellbeing of California as a whole.

 “I’ve experienced first-hand what it means to have a crappy education,” said Santana, who is an activist with Students for Quality Education, a system-wide Cal State student organization. “I don’t want others to go through what I’ve been through.”

 At his university, Santana has organized and educated fellow students about making higher education accessible to low-income students. In Sacramento, he’s met face-to-face with legislators to lobby for that same issue.

 “If students can’t get into CSU or community colleges, they won’t have anywhere to go,” said Santana, his voice rising in frustration. “And if they do graduate, they have to go out and find work that’s not even out there. People get desperate and there is more crime. Historically that is what has happened, and history is just going to repeat itself.”

 While Santana gets riled when talking about numbers and figures, he doesn’t understand why more students don’t share his dissatisfaction, especially when he goes out of his way to educate his peers on issues that affect them directly. “This is something everybody should be angry about, and I don’t apologize for being angry about it,” he said.

 Someone who does share his passion is Angelica Mondragon, an anthropology major at Cal State, Long Beach. Mondragon is originally from San Bernardino, a community of largely low-income black and Latino families. Her campus, where 27 percent of the students are Latino, has also endured massive cuts. Currently, the campus faces a $42 million cut and decreasing state support, from about $6,400 per student to $5,000, according to the university’s president.

 “I think it’s ridiculous when we are taught that we should pursue higher education when the state is not making it financially possible,” said Mondragon, who also works with Students for Quality Education.

 Early on, Mondragon knew that her family couldn’t help her pay for college. Until recently, she had fared well on her own with a scholarship and financial aid. But last winter, she had to take a third job after her financial aid was cut.

 “I was running out of money, but I didn’t want that to stop me from going to school,” said Mondragon. “I know I will finish school, and I’m not going to let money be a threat to me.”

 She’s now considering loans for the first time, something that pains her since her own mother was forced to declare bankruptcy when Mondragon was just a child. She’s also making plans so her younger sisters, ages nine and two, will get a quality education by the time they get to college. She’s begun a college fund for them.

 “I know it’s going to be super expensive by the time they go to school, and I don’t want financial struggle to get in the way of their education,” Mondragon said.

 Tina Dea, a child development major at Cal State, Northridge, has also had to pay her own way through college. Since her Cal Grant was cut last year by $1,000, she has been struggling to make ends meet. “It was stressful, but I learned a lot,” she said. “I’m not saying the cuts are good, but they have taught me a lesson—one that I could have learned another way, though.”

 While the governor has given up, at least for now, on his efforts to cut the Cal Grant, Steve Boilard, director of Higher Education at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said it doesn’t mean recipients are safe.

 “The state is running out of cash, and the state is issuing IOUs rather than providing grant funding to the campuses,” clarified Boilard. “So it’s unclear when the students will actually be able to get their Cal Grants.”

 Because Dea relies heavily on the state grant and knows she will have a tough semester ahead of her with a full load at school, an internship and no job, she is preparing. She’s planning to move in with her friend, which she said would cut her rent expenses by $100, and she will live on grant money she received from AmeriCorps.

 Although she is thinking ahead, Dea is still worried.

 “It’s kind of scary to think that we might not be able to provide for our families in the future,” said Dea. “It frustrates me because those that want to get ahead can’t.”

 While frustration mounts, and campuses and students across the state suffer, both Geron and Santana insisted that there are ways to work around the latest crisis. The California Faculty Association and Students for Quality Education support Assembly Bill 656, which would provide funding for California colleges and universities by imposing a tax on oil companies.

 “Instead of cutting, legislators need to find ways to generate revenue,” said Santana.

 Sanchez from Alliance for a Better Community also thinks students’ futures should be funded if the state is going to get out of its financial chaos.

 “We don’t want to go through economic mood swings when we need to focus on the next generation,” said Sanchez. “California needs a fair and balanced system that doesn’t marginalize people of color and make them subject to every economic bubble that comes around.”

 Follow the protests online Students Against Cal Grant Budget Cuts

 Students for Quality Education California Faculty Association At California State University of Northridge