May 21, 2014 1:02 AM by Maddie Garrett
It's high school graduation week all across Southern Colorado, but the next step isn't as clear as it has been in the past. Higher education comes at a higher cost than ever before, and more high school seniors are saying those costs are a big factor on where, or if they go on to take college classes.
The Department of Labor Statistics found that last fall, only 65.9% of high school graduates of the previous year were enrolled in college classes. That's the lowest number in a decade.
So before graduation day on Tuesday, News 5 sat down with five Mitchell High School seniors to get a better understanding of the struggle to pay for college.
"I applied for over 50 scholarships, I only got a total of three," said senior Ahnika Leroy.
We asked the five students a series of questions. All said they were worried about going into debt because of college, all said cost played a part in where they were or were not going to go to school, and all five said they applied for scholarships, but only one of them, Leroy, received significant financial aid.
Leroy said her good grades and hard work are part of the reason why she received scholarships and help to pay for college. But she said the main reason is because she is a homeless teenager. She described herself as "extremely lucky to be extremely poor."
"My estimated family contribution is zero because I don't have a family who can, like, let alone provide a place to live but provide money for college. So I'm very fortunate for that, it's kind of a blessing in disguise because I get $19,000 in financial aid with going to the University of (Colorado) Boulder," explained Leroy.
The statistics back up Leroy's scenario. According to a non-profit called College Board, the only undergraduate students to get the maximum federal Pell Grant amount, of $5,500, were students who had an expected family income of $0.
Leroy's best friend, Sarah Romas, said she too dreamed of going to CU-Boulder. But won't be able to because she can't afford it.
"Me and Ahnika, we went and toured there together actually, we planned our dorm and everything. And then we got my financial award packet and it said the school was not going to help me at all," said Romas.
Romas is like a lot of middle class students, who fall into the gap when it comes to financial aid. When she filled out her FAFSA (federal financial aid application) she put her mother's expected income of $80,000, but it didn't give her a chance to explain her family's situation and why she needed financial aid.
"That seems like a lot to cover college, but I have a lot of medical issues, I have arthritis and a lot of her income actually goes to that for my treatment, so we really don't have as much as we seem," explained Romas.
Instead of CU-Boulder, she's going to CSU Pueblo because it's less expensive and she got a little financial aid there.
Romas is part of a growing trend, where more students are opting for cheaper schools instead of their first pick.
According to the annual Freshman Survey, conducted and published by UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, only 60% of students enrolled in their first choice of school last year, the lowest since 1974. The study also found that the percentage of students who said cost was a "very important" factor in their choice is at its highest, 46%. That's up 15 percentage points from 2004.
"So I personally don't have the means to pay for it and I don't want to be in years of debt," said another student, Zach Egan.
Egan took a different route, enlisting in the U.S. Army as military police. He plans to take classes through the Army's community college while active duty.
"I'm not saying that I chose the military just to pay for my college, but that was a benefit. But I chose the military because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," said Egan.
Another trend identified by College Board, declining financial aid. The Federal Government's contribution to student aid had been rising steadily up until the 2010-2011 school year, where it peaked at 74%. But in 2012-2013, it started falling, to 71%.
"It's very frustrating, it's just like, you say there's money out there but we strive to get it, but we don't receive it. We're working our butts off," said senior Mikala Hodges.
But for senior Karen Cejudo, and hundreds of other undocumented students, financial aid isn't an option.
"They told me if I was a U.S. citizen they would help me pay all my college, but since I'm not I can't," said Cejudo.
She had hopes of going to the University of Denver, but realized she won't be able to do that if she's paying for classes all on her own. Her mom is a single mother who doesn't work, and Cejudo still has three more years before she can get legal U.S. residency, which takes a total of five years living legally in the country.
She said when she first started planning for college, she didn't anticipate getting turned down at every angle for financial aid.
"No I actually thought it was going to be easier," said Cejudo. "But it's harder, it's very hard, that's why I'm going to a cheaper college."
So Cejudo plans to continue working and paying for her own college courses at a community college.
All five students said the number one problem with higher education these days is the rising cost. The average in-state tuition for Colorado's public colleges is $16,700 a year, and that doesn't include fees, housing or books.
Here's a look at some of the estimated total costs, including tuition, housing, books and fees, per year at Colorado's public colleges, and then the percentage of students who receive financial aid:
UCCS: $21,893 - 58% of students get scholarships or grants
UC Boulder: $26,933 - 39% of students get scholarships or grants
UC Denver: $22,339 - 53% of students get scholarships or grants
CSU Ft. Collins: $24,524 - 46% of students get scholarships or grants
CSU Pueblo: $20,618 - 73% of students get scholarships or grants
Community College System: $7,920 tuition only
For more information on how to find and acquire student financial aid for college, follow the links below:
College Board: https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college