Will I get in? Can I afford it?

College application season brings pressure, excitement and optimism

Checking Facebook around the time that college acceptance letters go out can be tough, Daniel Kline says. The onslaught of positive status updates declaring who got in where, and, in some cases, how much has been awarded in financial aid, grants and scholarships can deal quite a blow to the ego of those viewing them.

Kline, an 18-year-old senior at Mountain View High School, said he had a contact who did just that -- repeatedly reminding Kline of how hard of a time he was having figuring out how he would pay for his own college tuition.

"It makes me kind of mad," says Ashley Pankonen, 18, and a senior at Mountain View High School. "They don't have to worry about the same things that you have to worry about."

Pankonen says that she doesn't mean to come off as bitter. She knows that there is no use worrying about such matters. All the same, though, "it hurts," she says.

Social media adds a new twist to the already tumultuous and emotional road to college, according to Marti McGuirk, an academic counselor at Mountain View High School.

"It's different, because it's so immediate," McGuirk says. When she was graduating from high school she may have taken a look in the school newspaper to see who was going where, but that would likely leave time for each student had the chance to digest their own situation. Today, "the second kids find out, they share. They put it out there immediately and they don't always think of the ramifications."

High school kids are acutely aware of, and concerned with, their image and how they are perceived by their friends and other students, McGuirk says. Being admitted to a venerable institution, like Berkeley, Stanford or Harvard provides "instant notoriety among your peers." Adding the immediacy of Facebook to the college application process increases the amount of pressure students feel to succeed.

Finding the funds

But social media is merely one component of many amplifying the pressure felt by students these days, according to McGuirk.

The ailing economy has dried up college funds and put parents out of work.

"Circumstances change," McGuirk says. "The college future that was once secure, isn't anymore" -- a fact that can be hard for an adolescent to wrap his or her mind around.

Kline reported feeling guilty for being accepted to a prestigious and expensive school, because "money is tight" in his household right now. And even though he knows his parents could afford his SAT and SAT II tutoring, he seemed to wince when recounting how much it cost.

If the job market is rough on the parents of high school students, it can prove even more daunting to the students themselves -- especially those who are planning to pay their way through college.

Pankonen, who is working part time right now, worries about how she will make enough money to support herself in the coming years, and Justin Sarmiento, a 17-year-old Mountain View senior who plans to major in nursing at Cal State East Bay, isn't sure if he will be able to afford to live near campus or if he will have to commute.

McGuirk does her best to help students like Pankonen and Sarmiento, coaching them on where to find scholarships and grants, and advising them to make financially prudent decisions.

For example, Pankonen and McGuirk worked together to determine that it would be in her best interest to get the first two years of general education done locally at Foothill College before she applies to transfer to the University of California Santa Cruz, where she hopes to study to be an X-ray technician.

Other pressures

While some students feel the financial strain of college weighing upon them, others, for whom money isn't as much of an issue -- either because they come from a wealthy family or have managed to secure financial aid -- may feel an entirely different pressure, according to McGuirk.

"I think there is some expectation from parents that their kids will go to a good school and they want their kids to do as well, if not better, than they did," she says. "But if your mom or dad went to Cal or Stanford, you don't have much room to grow."

For students who come to her office with all of their academic eggs in an Ivy League basket, McGuirk says she does her best to show them that they might find the education and experience they desire at any number of other schools.

"I don't think people have to stress as much as they do, given the fact that there are so many choices of colleges out there," McGuirk says. "You are going to make you successful. The college you choose isn't going to make you successful."

McGuirk counts herself, as well as the students she counsels, lucky, thanks to the healthy ratio of counselors to students in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.

While the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students, the reality is that the national average is 457-1. In California, a state that is suffering from a massive budget deficit, the ratio is close to double the national average at 814-1.

However, in the Mountain View-Los Altos district the ratio is 358-1. It is a manageable number, according to McGuirk, who says that the most important aspect of an academic counselor's job is understanding the students' hopes and goals.

"I think it's huge," she says. "I think that's what my entire job is. If I don't know them personally, it's really hard to do my job well."

Despite all the stress that comes along with the college application process, all of the Mountain View High School students interviewed for this story are looking forward to the next big step.

"It was definitely a stressful situation," says Marisa Leone, a 17-year-old senior on her way to U.C. Santa Cruz. Writing essays and waiting for acceptance letters were the two most trying aspects of the process, she recalls. But now that she knows she has been accepted and her path is set, Leone says she is "really, really, really excited for college."


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Posted by k
a resident of Shoreline West
on May 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Why do these students seem to forget that they can work to pay their own way through college? My parents refused to pay for part of my eudcation, but I managed it-- went to a UC, worked at least 20 hours per week, and came out with only $6000 in loans. If you really want to do it, you can. It just takes a lot of work and significantly less partying...

High school guidance counselors should offer information about how these students can get jobs too, like putting them in touch with the career centers at their potential campuses to learn about possible on campus job opportunities. Relying only on scholarships and grants and loans isn't going to cut it.

Also, advising them to go to a community college sounds nice, but the classes here are in such high demand that they fill up within days of the class schedule opening. It might take them 3-4 years to get the necessary prereqs!

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Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of another community
on May 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

K - the cost of college has gone up significantly since many of us were in school. For example, UC Santa Cruz is 32K a year (in state, including room and board, etc). For a student to work 20 hours a week and come out with only 6K in debt, they would need a job that pays $30 an hour, which is probably more than they will make when they graduate.

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Posted by k
a resident of Shoreline West
on May 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm

It was at least $28k when I graduated. If they live on campus, there's the option to be an RA that will cover your room & board, and you can still have another job on top of that. You can also choose to live in more affordable places than on campus housing (which is ridiculously overpriced). Also, they can sometimes refuse to pay certain student-voted fees. And not have a car.

My point is that there are many ways to cut costs, and counselors are not doing a good job of educating students that they don't have to pay the full pricetag listed in the catalog and the other workarounds. No one told me about these things before I started college, I had to find it out myself.

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Posted by Sabrina
a resident of The Crossings
on May 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I just graduated from a UC last year, and I am sorry to say this but the budget crisis is a very real issue for many families. I attended a cheap community college before transferring to a UC and somehow managed to graduate with just $12k in (cheap, not private) loans. Many students I knew who attended UCs had somewhere from $20k-$40k in loans upon graduation.

As far as working part-time while in school, at least at UCSC, you are lucky to get 10 hours a week with $8/hour working on campus. And you need to own a car to work anywhere off-campus for more hours and better pay. Even so, it is very hard for most to find work.

The middle class is getting badly crunched by the global financial crisis. I remember in 2009 when the UC Regents voted on a measure to slowly increase tuition at all ten UCs by 32%. I feel badly for those younger than me who will need to bear the brunt of this.

And I should also note that there have been extreme increases in cost of tuition not just in California and the US but also notably in the UK where students are dealing with the same anxiety as over here. Unfortunately, the education that "k" enjoyed is getting more and more difficult to attain by the year.

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Posted by Pete
a resident of The Crossings
on May 11, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Don't go to UC Santa Cruz. I personally know a UC Santa Cruz graduate who applied for a job. The recruiter just couldn't deal with the fact that his college transcript had no grades. Game over.

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Posted by k
a resident of Shoreline West
on May 12, 2011 at 9:57 am

It's true that it's getting harder. :( But it's still possible to mitigate costs somewhat. Those who graduate with the full (I mean entire catalog price) amount of their education in loans, with very few exceptions, are just lazy. (You can get scholarships & grants for good grades which come from hard work, money from jobs that equal hard work, etc.)

Pete-- you're way out of the loop. UCSC has had grades for many, many years and I believe have even made the narrative evaluation system entirely optional for instructors.

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Posted by Proud Slug
a resident of another community
on May 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I went to UCSC back in the days of narrative evaluations, and had no trouble landing a job in my chosen profession after graduating with honors, without a single letter grade on my transcript.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Cuesta Park

on Jun 3, 2017 at 6:33 am

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