No cash for college?

The group of high school seniors sat in the classroom of Paso Robles High School English teacher Aaron Cantrell full of hopes and dreams — and certainly fears.

In a replay of what is happening at high schools across the county, the students critiqued each other’s college essays under student-made college posters and heard they needed staff to double-check their applications before submitting them online.

But what makes this year different is how the mushrooming cost of attending college is dominating much of the discussion.

The application period for the University of California opens today, which also marks the midway point for applying to the California State University system.

College costs increased an average of 6.5 percent last year, according to The College Board, which administers the SAT, even though other cost indexes actually dropped in the same period.

In California, college costs have risen even faster because of the state budget crisis. Students attending a public university in California for fall 2010 can expect to pay 40 percent more in fees than their counterparts who entered the same colleges in fall 2008.

Talks of money

How much are families discussing money?

“It’s like the biggest discussion that there is right now,” said Paso Robles High senior Ashlynn Snider, to the nodding agreement of the collection of girls sitting around her in Cantrell’s Advanced Placement English class.

One student’s college admission essay describes the times in which we live: his father lost a longtime good-paying job and now works in retail for far less money. The boy is planning to go into nursing and is applying to San Francisco State, UC Irvine, UCLA and San Diego State.

Jessica Long is considering a path that worked for her sister, Carissa, who is attending Long Beach State on a full President’s Scholarship.

Jessica plans to apply for full rides through such special programs at different CSUs, but her dream school is UCLA, and she worries about cost if she’s accepted.

“The pressure is kind of on for me because they (her parents) are going to say, ‘Are you going to get a scholarship too?’ ” she said.

Paso senior Luiz Mendoza is also working on college applications in the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination Program. AVID is aimed at helping first-generation college students.

Mendoza was able to qualify for the CSU Educational Opportunity Program, and he is counting on substantial financial aid. His dream school is Columbia University in New York.

College debt going up

Gone are the days that high school counselors remember from their own college years, when a summer job could pay tuition and a job during the year could help pay for much of the rest with a minimum in loans.

Looking at a top school from each California public system: UC Berkeley’s total student annual costs are expected to surpass $32,500 in fall 2010; and Cal Poly’s costs are expected to reach $22,500. Those numbers are for freshmen living on campus.

But Arroyo Grande High School head counselor Kevin Anderson is the first to give students a lesson in how they can live on far less than the “cost of attendance” schools quote.

“We’re always telling them that the cost of attendance is developed so the universities can get maximum federal money,” he said. “You can do it for less.”

When he a led a college tour, his current class met up with an alumna who attends CSU Northridge. She told his students she would be able to attend this year on $15,000, while the site says an amount closer to $20,000.

“I still go out there and say don’t let money get in the way of the education,” said Morro Bay High School counselor Paul Orton. “I tell them to apply broadly and not rule out private schools.”

Counselors suggest students should apply to a couple of CSUs, small privates, and out-of-state schools as backups. But they should still apply to their dream schools.

“We always encourage them to apply wherever they want to go, but to have a Plan B,” said Cheryl Seay, counselor at Coast Union High School in Cambria. But at a recent event, she heard the CSU chancellor say, “They need to have a Plan C, D, E and F.”

Each counselor noted financial aid, where applicable, will expand to pay the new higher costs, as will federally backed loans for students and parents.

Schools creative too

Some public universities from other states are now competing for California’s top students by waiving non-resident tuition, because the California systems have gone up in price.

Ivy League and other top-tier schools have come up with financial aid programs to attract the best students because of what was a growing belief that they were not attracting top middle-class students because of costs.

Harvard, for example, has decided that families making between $120,000 and $180,000 have to pay only 10 percent of their income.

A second-tier private college will come up with more money in aid and sometimes be cheaper than public colleges, counselors stress, and the top private colleges will still want the best students.

“I’m telling the kids to think about private schools,” said Cantrell, who leads Paso students on tours of Northern and Southern California colleges. “I went to Stanford and paid no more than $2,000 per year.”

Many of the counselors also have their students apply to Cuesta. In the end, a degree from a four-year university after two years at a community college is much cheaper.

But students know this year is different.

“One thing I can tell you is they are lot more serious about applying for scholarships than I can remember, that I can tell you,” said Orton from Morro Bay.