Applying to attend is one of those life steps that can be daunting. Students, who most likely had a hard enough time deciding which college to attend, are nervous all over again because they don't want to screw it up.
And parents, especially those who haven't been through it before, are jittery as they contemplate the costs and deadlines and paperwork.
One of those deadlines, by the way, is approaching fairly quickly. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- or FAFSA -- must be turned in by March 2. Well, that's not technically true. It can be turned in later, but if you miss the March 2 deadline your family runs the very real risk of not receiving as much aid as it deserves.
This doesn't have to be painful.
UC Merced can help. And not just incoming UC Merced students.
Through its Student First Center, the university will answer questions about all sorts of questions -- student aid, application deadlines and course requirements. It's a one-stop center built to answer just about any question a student might have. Staff at the center will try to answer questions about courses at other state colleges and community colleges, too.
Help isn't limited to kids who will attend college next fall. Parents of high school freshmen can make certain their students are making the right preparations for college either by calling the Student First Center or getting in touch with the Center for Educational Partnerships, also at UC Merced.
Having such help available for middle-class parents can be comforting. Having it available for lower-income families is indispensible. For too long, many families might have believed that college was out of reach for their children. With the sluggish economy and much-debated tuition increases, it might appear even more distant.
But it's simply not true.
Nearly two thirds of UC Merced's 5,400 students are the first in their families to attend college. That's why the administration puts so much effort into making sure they can get all the help they need.
"The future of our valley depends on the success of our students, but sticker shock from the price of a college degree often keeps our best and brightest from meeting their full potential," said Rep. Jim Costa, whose district stretches from south of Fresno to Turlock. "Every student should know what resources are available to help them."
As Costa said, sending more students to college is critical to the valley's economy. Filling well- paying jobs often requires recruiting candidates from outside our area because local workers don't have the skills. Helping our young people find their way into college puts them on the path for personal success. And that enriches our region.