Yesenia Guerrero graduated from Bravo High School in June and started New York University in September. While the future looks bright for the 18-year-old Boyle Heights resident, she is still not sure how she’ll pay for college after her first year.

Guerrero is taking a great financial risk. Her parents will be able to contribute $16,000 for the first year, but nothing after that.

“I really wanted to go to NYU, and the school is great for engineering. I heard about it in college fair, and I researched more on it,” says Guerrero.

While salaries have remained nearly unchanged over the past 10 years, the cost of going to college has soared. Many students of color often rely on federal grants for low-income students, which don’t have to be repaid. But they barely cover a third of the cost of college, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In 2013, seven in 10 students graduated from college with an average of $28,400 in debt. This was a two percent increase from the previous year, according to the Institute
The College Board says that the average annual tuition cost for a public four-year university is $9,139 and $31,231 for a private four-year university. Room, board, books and transportation add thousands more.

Many more students are being admitted into colleges, but that is just the first step. Paying for it is the next. With tuition rising nearly every year, it is really easy for students to feel overwhelmed.

Often students from low-income families end up with the most debt, since their families cannot afford to contribute much, or they take on high interest bank loans to help pay. The pressure and debt sometimes leads students to drop out, though they are still burdened with the debt and likely to have to take a lower paying job.

Likely debt: $120,000

If Guerrero continues at NYU for the next four years, it’s likely that when she begins her career, she will already be deep in debt –$120,000 or more. She is planning to maintain a high GPA so that she can receive more scholarships.

NYU’s current tuition and estimated living expenses add up to more than $70,000 per year, similar to many private universities. Guerrero has received $36,000 worth of scholarships a year from the university, leaving the family $34,000 to pay each year. With a family income of $50,000, her parents can afford to pay $16,000 this year, but have not committed to the following years.

Guerrero will take out the remaining $18,000 in federal and bank loans to finance her first year. With federal subsidized loans, interest does not accumulate while the student is in school; interest on federal unsubsidized loans does. The terms of private student loans from banks vary depending on the bank.

Guerrero believes it’s worth it. “It would be better if it were cheaper, but it’s for education,” says Guerrero. “Plus, engineering is a good job, so I will be able to pay the loans back fast.”

It takes college graduates an average of 15 to 18 years to pay off their debt.

This is not always the case. On average, it takes college graduates 15 to 18 years to pay off their debts. It can take even longer for former students who took out loans, but did not complete their degrees. While many students begin college careers with optimism about their ability to repay their loans, finances can sometimes overburden them and force them to change course.

While the number of Hispanic students enrolled in two and four year schools has increased by over 240 percent over the last 18 years, only 14.1 percent of Hispanics across the nation have a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. According a 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, “The Student Debt Crisis,” 74 percent of Latinos who dropped out of college did so for financial reasons.

Experts say there are many things to consider when taking on loans to finance an education, especially when considering high interest unsubsidized loans. One of them is the average starting salary of the intended career, as that will contribute to how long it will take for the student to pay back the loans. Required annual payments for education loans should not account for more than 10 percent of the average starting salary in the student’s field.

Different degrees have different earning potentials; paying off a loan after earning a degree in engineering is easier than paying off a loan with a degree in social work. While beginning salaries in engineering average $60,000, a salary for a job requiring a liberal arts degree can begin closer to $40,000.

Michelle Thibeault, an English teacher at Méndez High School, took 10 years to pay off her undergraduate loans. Now she is paying off loans for her master’s degree at $125 a month for 15 years. She is also paying off loans for her daughter’s first year college expenses, which will cost $150 a month for 15 years. Thibealt says she never expected it would take her so long. “Paying school loans is not fun, needless to say, but we all have to do it.”

Stephany Alencaster, a recent graduate of Bravo High School, turned down Yale University after she was offered a full ride at University of California, Merced.

The biological science major says at first she chose Yale because of the name, but after receiving nearly $35,000 in aid from UC Merced, she changed her mind.

“You realize how important and serious the financial part is to you,” says Alencaster. “I knew at that point that it wasn’t the name that mattered at all. It was me that mattered, and it was where I was at that was going to make the difference.”

Community college option

Even with debt, college graduates are one third less likely to be living in poverty than high school graduates: there are more options than just taking loans or not going at all.

Many students choose to go to a two-year college before transferring to a university.

Instead of going to a university directly from high school, students can choose to go to a community college for two years, which can save them from $12,000 to $66,000 a year, depending on whether their alternative was a public or private university.

While some students initially reject the idea of choosing community college over more prestigious four-year schools, others worry about taking on debt.

Aileen Ramos, a 2015 high school graduate, chose Santa Monica College because she qualified for a waiver that pays for all her classes. “I’m getting a free education, and there is no complaint in that,” she says.

For undocumented students, an additional concern is that they are not eligible for federal financial aid, but may receive state aid.  Some states, including California, give scholarships and grants to undocumented students.

Yazmin Núñez, a graduate of Roosevelt High School and a former Boyle Heights Beat reporter, chose Cal State University at Long Beach because she was offered a $10,000 annual scholarship. With the money, she is able to live in a dorm and only has to pay about $1,000 out of pocket each year.

“I think you shouldn’t choose the school on fame, but instead on what the school has to financially offer you,” says Núñez.

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