Merced area below state average for college students needing loans

03/25/2014 10:20 PM

03/25/2014 10:58 PM

It took just two years for California State University, Stanislaus, graduate Larry Rodriguez to rack up about $20,000 in loan debt.

The Merced native said he took as many classes as he could at less-expensive Merced College before transferring to finish his bachelor’s degree in psychology, because he knew it would cost a pretty penny once he reached a four-year school.

“It was a necessary evil,” the 26-year-old said. “I knew it was going to come at some point.”

He’s not alone. Taking out federal student loans is becoming more common in California.

Though he worked while finishing school, Rodriguez said he was “lucky enough” to find a better paying job right out of college. He needed to make more money to begin to pay down his federal loans.

The percentage of California undergraduates who took out federal loans to pay for college reached 74 percent in 2012, up from 51 percent in 2004. That leads many to graduate in debt, according to a report released this week by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Both four-year public colleges in this area, UC Merced and the California State University, Stanislaus, fall below the statewide average for student loans. The percentage of students who took a federal loan last year was 58 percent and 38 percent at UC Merced and Stanislaus State, respectively, according to each school’s financial aid office.

The average 2012 graduate of a four-year public university in California finished school with $17,558 in federal student loan debt, the report stated. The number rises to $22,331 for independent university graduates.

The debt for a UC Merced graduate is about $13,000, and a Stanislaus State student faces about $16,500 after graduation, each institution reported.

“If debt means you’re going to go to college and get a college degree, we know you’re going to be successful in life,” said Audrey Dow, spokeswoman for Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit that advocates for better access to higher education. “What we want to mitigate is when borrowing becomes bad.”

There are four major factors for the increase in students across the state using federal loans, the report stated. More people are choosing to go to college; some don’t fill out paperwork for grants; state budget cuts have pushed up tuition; and grants do not cover all of the expenses that come with going to college.

Dow said California is a “low-debt state.” State lawmakers have continued to pump money into the Cal Grants system to attempt to keep up with the rise in tuition.

Many students from the Central Valley can qualify for federal or state grants, which do not have to be repaid. Dow said it falls to the responsibility of high schools and colleges to educate and “demystify”students and their families about the grants, scholarships, loans and other options available.

More than 60 percent of students at UC Merced and more than 80 percent at Stanislaus State qualify for some kind of grant assistance. And more than 90 percent at each campus apply.

Diana Ralls, the director of financial aid and scholarships at UC Merced, said her staff conducts outreach programs to area high schools, offers information on its website and will assist anyone who asks for help with applications.

“At UC Merced there is not money sitting around that no one is claiming,” she said.

The university also offers the Blue and Gold Program, for which two-thirds of students qualify. A resident whose family earns less than $80,000 a year is guaranteed enough in grant cash to cover tuition.

Ralls said getting every student to fill out a financial aid and grant application is key, because some of the grants are considered entitlement programs. Such programs are guaranteed to those who qualify.

Noelia Gonzalez, director of admissions and financial aid at Stanislaus State, said the state university’s tuition runs lower than many others in the state and contributes to fewer students taking out loans at the school.

Stanislaus State also offers outreach programs and a “comprehensive” website on financial aid options, Gonzalez said.

“We work with students and their families to try to remove those financial barriers,” she said.

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