I visited Riverside for a college-going story. My colleague and I stopped at UCR. Photo Credit: Victoria Franco

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Long lines and late zooms

While out on assignment for a new batch of stories focused on college-going in California, I stumbled upon a passionate duo in Riverside County.

Catalina Cifuentes, the executive director for county education office, and Yuridia Nava, a high school counselor, are determined to help their students access the state’s Promise Program.

The program began in 2018 to create more opportunities for students to afford college. It’s separate from the California College Promise Grant, which waives enrollment fees for students from lower income families.

Part of the goal of the Promise Program was to close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes. But that program does not require colleges to waive tuition.

It gives colleges flexibility to give out grants to students for a range of costs. Many colleges instead focus on student services to cover costs like childcare, transportation, or books.

At first, many students thought this program could help make community college essentially free for more students in the state.

But it turns out that removing certain financial burdens, or even making college free, doesn’t always remove other barriers to higher education. Cifuentes and Nava soon realized that though the program had great potential — their students face many challenges.

“On the outside, when you ask the question ‘What would you think?’ Well, if you’re not in education you think this is amazing,” Cifuentes said. “There’s no excuse why they shouldn’t go to college but when you navigate it with a student you realize it’s not easy.”

For one, the process for applying can be complicated and confusing. Each community college sets its own requirements and expectations for the program instead of a more uniformed process.

Some, for example, required college fees be paid upfront and then reimbursed — a sudden cost that some families were not expecting.

Under the program policy, districts “decide what is best for their students” and are allowed to use the funds in a variety of ways as long as the districts increase the number of high school students entering college or transferring from community college to a state university and close achievement gaps, especially for students from underrepresented communities.

To help students, counselors have to keep up with dozens of different standards. Cifuentes and her team created a 10-page “cheat sheet” that outlined every different requirement or standard outlined by colleges.

Even students with a lot of drive and ambition are left questioning whether it’s worth the time, Nava said.

One of her students did not realize he had a full award letter and when the two of them logged onto a Zoom appointment to talk to an advisor about his financial aid package, they waited for two hours before the call was disconnected.

Some requirements attached to the grants can create new challenges for students, too. Some colleges, for example, may mandate summer courses, a time many students count on for getting work experience and saving up money.

I talked with students like Aleah Medina about her experiences with college.

When college becomes too overwhelming

Aleah Medina, a 21-year-old student from Riverside, was part of the Promise program and without Nava, she said the experience would have been overwhelming.

There were so many steps to first apply to college, then the Promise Program and even after she was accepted, Medina said navigating college was just as complicated.

“People get intimidated by that. I know a lot of people, some of my friends, who got intimidated and just dropped out,” Medina said.

At Riverside City College she worked in student services and would sometimes see other students from the program. Lines were long and students would arrive as early as 7 a.m. to try and talk to a counselor.

At times, students who only spoke Spanish would be turned away and asked to return another day when one of the bilingual staff members were back. Sometimes, students would try to ask Medina or other employees for help on selecting the right class.

Medina herself struggled. Working two jobs on top of classes took a toll. It became too much and in February 2020 she decided to drop out of the community college.

A couple months ago, she decided to try again with the hope of becoming a counselor like Nava.

Race and merit aid

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking with people across the South about the impacts of the merit-aid programs many states created a generation ago. Who has benefited from the programs? Who has been left behind? And how does race play a role?

I’ve already been struck by the disparities of race and class in some of these programs.

An educator in Orlando began a nonprofit in 2008 to help first generation students interested in college. Despite her efforts, none of her students qualified for the state scholarship, Bright Futures.

A student I talked to in Florida spent her weekends with a tutor, studied and practiced to prepare for the SAT and still did not meet the requirement.

“I’m 30 points away and I still can’t get it. It’s just 30 points. It was discouraging — it made me feel insecure,” said Samantha, a 21-year-old Haitian American student.

What, experts have asked, does merit in these situations truly mean? I am doing some more reporting, and would love to hear from you. Who else should I be sure to talk with? What research do you recommend or what else do you want to know? Contact me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

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‘We are undeterred’: How Mississippi’s oldest HBCU responded to the bomb threats
Molly Minta at Mississippi Today talked to the state’s oldest historically Black college about a concerning trend occurring across the country — more than two dozen HBCUs have received bomb threats. Read more about what’s happening. www.opencampusmedia.org

Colleges have hired more minority presidents amid racial reckoning
Colleges are hiring more Black and other people of color in leadership roles, according to an analysis done by Inside Higher Ed. More than a third of colleges and universities hired presidents and chancellors from racial minority groups. www.insidehighered.com

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.