Riva Lopez spent two years paying for tuition and books even though she qualified for federal and state financial aid, she said. The 23-year-old said the application process for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—the first step in seeking funds for books and tuition—was too complicated.

“They want so much paperwork and it takes a while, so by the time I would get it, it would just be better to pay for it on my own,” said the full-time student who is enrolled in the medical receptionist program on the

Like Lopez, other students at the Mission campus cited a complicated application process and lack of information as the reasons they have failed to take advantage of financial aid. The student body president at the Mission campus said no one has told him about financial aid and he has not taken the time to research about it either.

“I have to admit that I have not looked for the information,” Brian Melendez said.

But not all students were unaware of the aid.

Ivan Sanchez, 32, said he has gotten financial aid in the past.

“Not everybody knows about the financial help but there are many programs that you just have to go out and find,” Sanchez said, adding that he learned about the federal aid through a pamphlet.

Sanchez is now enrolled in the Construction Administration training, a program of City College and the Mission Hiring Hall. His classes are paid through a grant, he said.

“I think students just think they don’t qualify and that’s why they don’t apply,” he said.

City College trustees have outlined measures to help students tap into financial aid, which they hope will improve graduation and transfer rates of Latino, black, Native American, Filipino and Pacific Islander students.

They include moving the financial aid office to a central location—right now it is tucked away on a third floor—and creating a benefits intake system. There are also talks about reducing the number of prep courses students must take before they reach college-level math and English.

Those ideas came out of the Equity Hearings, which will run through next week.  The proposals will need to be debated with the entire board of trustees and have policy written on them, said Steve Ngo, a trustee.

Ngo said moving the financial aid office to a larger space in Conlan Hall—the same building that house the admissions and counseling offices—will make it easier for students to access financial aid information.

Right now the financial aid office is in the “third floor in the middle…in a very inaccessible place,” said Chris Jackson, another City College trustee.

The idea is to have the counseling offices on one floor and the admissions and records on another. Ngo said the in-take center would familiarize students with all the benefits.

“It would expose students to all the opportunities that the institution has to offer,” said Tai Tupua, 20, a Marine Biology and political science major at the Ocean campus.

Jackson said 60 percent of students who qualify for the financial aid are not getting it. He said students who get financial aid are more likely to focus on school and not on how they will pay for classes.

An October report by the college showed students of color are 10 to 20 percent more likely to say their goal to finish a degree from a community college or university but reach those goals at a lower rate.

Data shows that from 1998 to 2005, 16 percent of Latino students graduated or transferred within four years of studying at City College. For blacks and Filipinos it was 18 percent and 15 percent respectively. Asians are transferring at the highest rate at—33 percent, followed by whites at 21 percent.

Ngo said he’s optimistic that trustees can implement changes despite the college’s $20 million budget deficit. So far, City College has cancelled most of its summer courses and has implemented hiring freezes.

He pointed to a resolution the board passed last year that cut salaries of administrators earning more than $100,000 by six percent as an example that the board can effect change in tough times. That cut saved 45 classes, serving 1,500 students “who would otherwise have been left out.”

“We can actually prioritize dollars and put them back into classes,” Ngo said.

Laura Medina, 20, told trustees during the equity hearing that the college must set aside scholarships for undocumented students since they don’t qualify for state or federal financial aid.

“There’s hardly any financial aid for them and counselors are not well educated on AB 540,” Medina said referring to the state law that allows some undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition. Administrators estimate that there are about 100 students at City College who are classified as AB 540.

Students at the Mission campus also said their limited English has prevented them from asking if they qualify or not for the aid.

Case in point. A counselor told Andrea Flores, 32, that she could get money for books and other school-related expenses if she applied for financial aid.

Yet she never applied.

“I never checked if I qualified,” she said, adding that her limited English skills prevent her from submitting the application online.

Roberto Padilla has been studying English for three years at the Mission campus.

Not knowing English “can intimidate a person from asking even if there might be a bilingual person working” behind the counter.

Students also told the board during one hearing that it was nearly impossible for them to learn about lab jobs, which typically pay $9 per hour.

Even after they are hired said student Chrissy Leuma, 22, it can take months before a student can start working.

“It takes a long time for the paperwork to clear,” Leuma said.

Ngo said City College can use technology to reach students to announce financial aid workshops or student job openings.

“I asked during the hearing how many students are on Facebook and everyone raised their hand,” he said. “We have to look for ways to reach them in ways that we haven’t reached them before.”

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Rosa Ramirez grew up listening to stories about her father and uncles migrating from a small rural town in Mexico to work in the garment district in Los Angeles. Now, as a reporter for Mission Loc@l, Rosa enjoys telling the stories of immigrants from Latin America and other parts of the world who are making San Francisco their new home.
Her beat is San Francisco City College and higher education.
Before coming to UC Berkeley, Rosa worked for various news organizations across the country including Hispanic Link News Service, Birmingham Post-Herald, Rocky Mountain News and Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Rosa, who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, graduated from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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