Jose Ortiz was accepted to both Cal State Long Beach and UC Santa Barbara. He says he chose Long Beach because it was less expensive.
“Financials were definitely part of my choice,” the 19-year-old said. “Growing up low-income, it was always a question of whether I was going to be able to afford (a) university and the cost of education.”
The cost of attending college is an issue many young people struggle with throughout the state.
At the University of California, the average tuition is $14,000 a year, with another $1,200 for books and supplies. California state schools, average around $5,750 in tuition, plus mandatory fees, and another $2,000 for books. California community colleges — while now free for first-time, full-time students — costs $46 per unit for part-time students.
Tuition costs weigh into students’ choice in choosing the right school, including whether they can commute from home to save money or move away to suffer the higher costs of housing. Because financial aid rarely covers living expenses, many students also have to choose between taking on debt or working to attend their dream school. For some, it’s a matter of paying tuition or rent.
While Ortiz chose CSU Long Beach because it was cheaper, he still had to take out loans and participate in work-study to pay for books, materials and other living expenses. After changing his mind about being a computer science major a year in, Ortiz transferred to East Los Angeles College, so he wouldn’t take on additional debt. He now lives with his parents and commutes to school.
Ortiz is currently working 15 hours a week on campus as a writing tutor and is trying to save money. He says he still receives financial aid, like when he attended Cal State Long Beach, but doesn’t have to take out loans for books and school supplies. While he plans on transferring back to another four-year university, he worries about the cost.
“I don’t want money to be the reason why I stay away from a college,” Ortiz said. “I really don’t want that to hinder me from going to school.”
While financial aid can cover tuition, students often struggle to make ends meet.
William Suy, 20, is a junior industrial design student at San Francisco State University, which costs about $7,250 per year. While his financial aid covers most of his tuition, he still pays about $400 a semester out of pocket.
“It’s hard for the average person to get a higher education,” he said. “After paying tuition, I don’t really have much leftover for spending money, and I just pull out loans in order to really keep up with the rent and (cost of) living up here.”
According to a Federal Reserve report on the economic well-being of U.S. households, 54 percent of young adults who went to college in 2018 took on student loan debt. Among the class of 2018, the average student loan debt was $29,800, according to Student Loan Hero, a division of Lending Tree, which helps student borrowers manage debt.
Suy currently lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four roommates. His share of the rent is about $840 month, not including utilities. Last year, he worked at Panda Express full-time but struggled to balance work and school.
“When I was working full-time, it hindered my education, and I didn’t perform well in school,” he said.
While he wanted to have the experience of living away from home and going to college, he now says he wishes he would have found a cheaper way to get there.
“If I had to redo my college experience, I would go to (a) city college and save more money and then transfer to a four-year.”
But while community colleges may be cheaper, many students still struggle with the high cost of housing. In some cases, just the price of room and board can impact their decision to continue their education.
A study released by the Hope Center, a research and policy institute, surveyed almost 400,000 California community college students in 2016 and 2018 and found 19 percent were homeless the previous year. The study also revealed that 50 percent of the respondents were food insecure.
Eric Hubbard is the development director at Jovenes, Inc., which helps adults aged 18-25 to end their cycle of homelessness. He says while working with local community colleges to arrange tours for prospective students, counselors approached the Boyle Heights non-profit, asking if they could house some of their homeless students.
“Homelessness amongst college students is a really big problem,” Hubbard said. “Here in Los Angeles, about one in five students at community colleges experience homelessness. The cost of living is so expensive, it makes it really hard for students to meet their basic needs, pay rent and focus on school.”
Christian Navarro, 24, is a senior studying English and education at Fresno State University. He attended College of the Sequoias (COS), a community college in Visalia, for two years before transferring.
Until last year, he managed to pay for school without loans, mainly because he works about 50 hours a week at three jobs: part-time at Starbucks and a yogurt shop, and as a photographer on the side.
“I try not to let it affect my schoolwork,” he said. “I sleep about 4-5 hours a night, but sometimes it’s very tough.”
Navarro says he feels fortunate he went to a community college first, but he wanted to move away from his small hometown, Visalia, since high school. He says he understands the stigma some associate with attending a community college, but he still has no regrets.
“I found my inspiration to become a teacher while at COS,” he said. “Some of my best professors were there.”
When tuition increased last year, Navarro had to take out his first subsidized loan and expects he’ll have to take out more to continue his education.
“I want to continue with my master’s, but sometimes I think about how much this is going to cost me, and if it’s all worth it,” he said. “I try to be optimistic. I know in due time, I’ll have to pay it back.”