While out on assignment for a new batch of stories focused on college-going in California
, I stumbled upon a passionate duo in Riverside County.
Catalina Cifuentes, the executive director for county education office, and Yuridia Nava, a high school counselor, are determined to help their students access the state’s Promise Program.
The program began in 2018 to create more opportunities for students to afford college. It’s separate from the California College Promise Grant, which waives enrollment fees for students from lower income families.
Part of the goal
of the Promise Program was to close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes. But that program does not require colleges to waive tuition.
It gives colleges flexibility to give out grants to students for a range of costs. Many colleges instead focus on student services to cover costs like childcare, transportation, or books.
At first, many students thought this program could help make community college essentially free for more students in the state.
But it turns out that removing certain financial burdens, or even making college free, doesn’t always remove other barriers to higher education. Cifuentes and Nava soon realized that though the program had great potential – their students face many challenges.
“On the outside, when you ask the question ‘What would you think?’ Well, if you’re not in education you think this is amazing,” Cifuentes said. “There’s no excuse why they shouldn’t go to college but when you navigate it with a student you realize it’s not easy.”
For one, the process for applying can be complicated and confusing. Each community college sets its own requirements and expectations for the program instead of a more uniformed process.
Some, for example, required college fees be paid upfront and then reimbursed – a sudden cost that some families were not expecting.
Under the program policy
, districts “decide what is best for their students” and are allowed to use the funds in a variety of ways as long as the districts increase the number of high school students entering college or transferring from community college to a state university and close achievement gaps, especially for students from underrepresented communities.
To help students, counselors have to keep up with dozens of different standards. Cifuentes and her team created a 10-page “cheat sheet” that outlined every different requirement or standard outlined by colleges.
Even students with a lot of drive and ambition are left questioning whether it’s worth the time, Nava said.
One of her students did not realize he had a full award letter and when the two of them logged onto a Zoom appointment to talk to an advisor about his financial aid package, they waited for two hours before the call was disconnected.
Some requirements attached to the grants can create new challenges for students, too. Some colleges, for example, may mandate summer courses, a time many students count on for getting work experience and saving up money.