Economy's woes create repercussions for students, parents

Jonathan Castillo, left, and Brandin Engersbach discuss the effect of the recession on their families' finances and their ability to attend college. (Photo by Gilbert Solorio)

For 23 years, Brandin Engersbach's mother operated a day care out of the family's home in the Highland Park district of east Los Angeles. But last June, the state funding she received for offering child care for low-income parents was cut off, a casualty of the state budget turmoil.

As a result, the day care saw a rapid decrease in business--a frightening development, since Engersbach's father was forced to retire 10 years ago after being diagnosed with cancer, and the day care was the family's only source of income.

The situation left Engersbach, 20, a third-year legal studies and politics major, in desperate financial straits when it came to affording college. He was forced to withdraw from UCSC for a quarter, return to Los Angeles, and find work to help his family and save for school. The following quarter, he applied for and received more financial aid than he had in his first two years at UCSC. His financial aid package includes grants, loans, and work-study; through the work-study program he is employed part-time in the Financial Aid office.

"I could not afford this on my own," Engersbach said. "It would be impossible."

Engersbach isn't alone in his plight. With the global economy reeling and the state budget in crisis, applications to UCSC's Financial Aid office have been edging upward, and the office has been seeing more and more cases like Engersbach's, said Ann Draper, director of financial aid.

"These are the kinds of stories that are coming to us on a daily basis," Draper said.

The Financial Aid Office has seen a 5 percent increase in applications for aid compared with last year at this time, according to Draper. She attributed the rise to the battered economy.

"We're seeing appeals from a lot of families where one or more parent has lost their job or they've lost their home," Draper said.

In other cases, the value of parents' college savings and investments has dropped.

She expects to see an increase in parents' federal loan applications in July, as well as a rise in student borrowing.

Engersbach said friends and Sigma Phi Zeta fraternity brothers--students whose parents had been footing the bill for college--have recently approached him to ask how to apply for aid.

Economic turmoil ripples outward

Second-year history and politics major Jonathan Castillo, 20, has a similar story to Engersbach's.

His parents are divorced. Before college, he lived in Pomona with his dad, a mechanic for an armored truck company. Most of his dad's income comes from overtime, but with the souring economy, the armored truck company's business has slowed. The company began pulling trucks off the road, which meant less work for mechanics.

"He's been with the company for 30 years, and even though he basically feels like he's given this company his life, there's no job security for him," said Castillo.

His father contributes to his college expenses, said Castillo, but "at great burden to him." In addition to his dad's contribution, Castillo, who is also a work-study student in the Financial Aid office, receives grants and loans to attend UCSC.

Regardless of the financial strain, Castillo's dad tells him the advantage of higher education is worth the struggle.

"It's his dream for me to go to school," said Castillo, who is the first in his family to attend college. "I didn't think about anything after high school but going to college. I had that mindset even as a little kid. I can't imagine this being taken away from me."

If Castillo's father were to be laid off, said Draper, "we can re-evaluate Jonathan's eligibility for financial aid. People can come to us with updated financial information."

Even with financial aid, both Engersbach and Castillo expect to be $20,000 in debt upon graduation.

Cost of college: up, up, up

A national trend has emerged in the past decade, said Draper: financial aid funding has not kept pace with the rise in the total cost of education.

The net cost of attending college for nine months has increased 80 percent in the past 10 years, she said, the result of fee hikes and both on- and off-campus housing cost increases.

In 2009-10, the total cost for a student living on campus at UCSC is estimated to be $27,500. That includes fees, food and housing, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses.

Ten years ago, the total cost was $13,955.

In 1999-2000, fees were 30 percent of the cost, housing 53 percent, and the remainder 17 percent.

For 2009-10, fees are 37 percent, housing 50 percent, and everything else 14 percent.

The rise in fees has come in part as the state has decreased its funding for the UC system.

President Obama's stimulus package provides more funds for college through the federal Pell Grant program, and UC has also enlarged its grant funding to help offset the increase in fees and other costs.

However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed last week to phase out Cal Grants and cut back existing awards as part of a stunning package of deep cuts to balance the state's $24.3 billion deficit after the failure of the May ballot measures.

To illustrate the impact Cal Grants have at UCSC, Draper said that if Cal Grants had been eliminated in 2008-09, UCSC students would have lost $26.3 million, which represents 33 percent of the total grant funds UCSC students receive, comprised of state, federal, and UC grants.

The grants help low and middle-income families, and currently 28 percent of UCSC undergrads receive them, said Draper. However, she explained, the impact of eliminating Cal Grants would be felt by half of UCSC's undergraduates because there would be less total grant money to spread around.

But she cautioned that the governor's proposal to eliminate the Cal Grant program for new students is "only a proposal at this time and must be approved by the Legislature."

"Our hope is that state budget issues will ultimately be resolved with the Cal Grant program intact," Draper said. "However, if the proposal passes, we will do what we can to mitigate the impacts on UC Santa Cruz students and their families."

"I'm pretty upset because I don't know what I'm going to do if that gets cut," said Castillo, who receives about $7,500 a year in Cal Grants--roughly a third of his total financial aid package. "I won't be able to go to school if that happens. I feel like all my plans could come to a halt."