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Getting a College Degree Without Financial Literacy Is Possible…But Not Recommended

Alhambra Source Community Outreach Manager Dominic Tovar shared his experiences applying for scholarships at the “How Not to Be Broke” workshop in June. Photo by Leah Chang


Alhambra , CA United States

U.S. students hold nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, according to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve. My part of that total, three years after earning my bachelor’s degree in literature and digital media from UC Santa Cruz, is $31,467.08, which is a bit more than the national undergraduate average of $28,650.

Although I knew about student aid options including Cal Grants, work study jobs and scholarships, the cost of attending a public university was still a strain and not very affordable for me – a lower middle class Latino student. Even with federal support, internships (paid and unpaid), and a number of side hustles, I had trouble paying for basic student necessities including textbooks, rent, school supplies and even food.

During my first year living on the UC Santa Cruz campus I had a five-day cafeteria meal plan that was funded by my financial aid award. This left two days out of the week where I didn’t have a reliable source of food. At this point I didn’t have a job and I was still adjusting to this new lifestyle that was outside the comfort bubble of home and Alhambra. With money going for textbooks, school supplies, and lab fees my first quarter, I didn’t have the funds for basic needs such as food for the weekend – or at least I didn’t have the skills to budget for them.

For a while one quarter I fed myself on weekends with an economy pack of granola bars and bundles of bananas I would sneak out of the cafeteria. When my roommates caught wind of my situation they began offering to sneak out a sandwich or slice of pizza from the cafeteria for me on Saturdays and Sundays. Either their financial aid packages could afford seven-day meal plans or they would get extra money from their families. I was always grateful for their support.

My first quarter experience is representative of the position many students across the country experience as they struggle to find the means to feed themselves and fund their higher education. Many are left hungry or sleep deprived. Some are homeless. Many others need to work multiple jobs while also being enrolled full-time.

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Although I didn’t find a work study job until my second year, odd jobs were plentiful on sites like Craigslist and bulletin boards on campus. One odd job I had was digging holes and planting trees at a landowners expansive property for $9 an hour. While working with a graduate student on another occasion, my partner dropped an old hand saw on my head while I was holding his ladder still.

Although it hurt and left me dizzy, we kept on working until the job was done. When we finished, I walked inside the house to get water and I noticed a cocktail of blood and sweat running down my head. The grad student notified the owner and after a brief aside, the owner’s husband asked me if I wanted them to call a doctor or if I would prefer an extra $30 added to my paycheck. I took the check, sat down outside for another hour with a pitcher of cold water and watched my work partner move onto the next item on our to-do list.

These stories are not unlike those experienced by countless other students. Some happen in an office, a restaurant, or a back yard, but all occur because students are scrambling to fund their education.

Preparing for College as A High School Student

As a San Gabriel High School student, I never thought about financial literacy or college prep courses. I was focused on getting good grades in my AP classes, being active in service clubs, and getting into the best four-year college I could. There were no resources that I knew of that discussed budgeting, constructing a five-year career plan, understanding different loan types and the advantages and disadvantages of each. I didn’t even know how to prepare my state and federal tax returns, the first document I needed to complete my federal aid application. FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form that all U.S. undergraduate and graduate students fill out in order to apply for federal aid. The task was always anxiety inducing.

One popular tool for funding education is scholarships. I received a scholarship for $500 from the Alhambra Latino Association (ALA), an organization that now gives $1,000 scholarships to AUSD seniors every year. Today, I give back by acting as  ALA’s Historian and I also handle their public relations and web management. All of this work helps support them as they raise funds for needy students and cultural awareness in Alhambra.

Reflecting on my student debt today, I find myself wishing that I had thought more about funding options and that courses exploring financial literacy were mandatory in school. Today there is no California law making financial literacy courses a requirement for graduation. But there are emerging resources.

Dominic’s Six Thoughts For The College Bound

1. Recognize that all financial aid begins with FAFSA

2. Know the differences between subsidized and unsubsidized loans

3. Understand how to establish credit and use it wisely

4. Make a spending and saving plan and stick with it

5. Weigh the pros and cons of jobs while in school – is the pay really worth the study time?

6. Make a five year plan for your higher education, career goals and finances now

College Preparedness and Financial Literacy Resources in Alhambra

According to the Mark Keppel High School “2019 California Distinguished Schools Program” webpage, Alhambra Unified School District adopted the Get Focused Stay Focused (GFSF) curriculum in 2017, a two semester course which goes over “valuable skills for career and college readiness.” This course is now introduced to students in their freshman year. The fact that this program is in place now shows that there is a rising awareness of the need of this curriculum for high school students as they being thinking about going to college.

According to Leann Huang, Career Tech Education Specialist for the Alhambra Unified School District, Get Focused Stay Focused covers everything a student would need to know in order to begin their career or education after high school. The program develops presentation skills, interview skills, and building a budget. The students taking the course are mostly 14-year-olds and are urged to think well into their futures. “At the end of the semester long course the students  finish off their 10-year plan which also goes over building a budget,” said Huang. “Skills that we integrate [in the GFSF program] include all the things you would think students would need for the outside world.”

Earlier this year, Alhambra Source tabled the AUSD Career Fair at Mark Keppel High School and conducted a small survey of students. Of the respondents, 53% claimed they had never been to a college prep workshop. Another 59% stated that they did not feel prepared to go to college. Though these students were from various grades, their responses speak to a state of anxiety that some feel when thinking about higher education.

These responses and the knowledge that financial literacy needs to be repeatedly presented and reinforced are what lit the flame for the Alhambra Source to present “How Not To Be Broke” financial literacy workshop in early June.

The Program: How Not To Be Broke

The free half -day workshop sought to teach students the basics of funding higher education, learn banking skills, think about how to manage jobs and school life and offer tips on building and using credit. Alhambra Source Project Leader Miguel Drayton was the driving force for the workshop.

College bound students volunteered their concerns about funding their higher education. Many asked thoughtful questions about banking, credit and other financial topics related to their college planning. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

With a diverse portfolio as a filmmaker and  administrator, Drayton brought his additional educator experience from Loyola Marymount University and the Art Institute of California to build the program for “How Not To Be Broke.” With inspiration from his “College Success” course that he conducted at the Art Institute, he knew how to prepare for college and what lessons are most fruitful for funding one’s education.

“One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education,” Drayton said in an interview before the workshop. “Learners need to be honest with themselves about their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Half of the job will be done if students leave our workshop with a better understanding of themselves.” This identifies the overriding goal of the workshop in a nutshell.

His presentation focused on developing critical thinking skills on sources of money for higher education. This included defining loan types, getting scholarships and internships, and deciding which job-type works best for the student in question. A part of his presentation focused on the differences between subsidized and unsubsidized loan types available to students. University students can qualify for unsubsidized loans as long as they are pursuing a degree but these loans include interest charges. Subsidized loans, on the other hand, are given to students based on their financial need and involve the income level of the applicant’s family. These loans do not charge interest for enrolled students.

My financial aid package as an incoming freshman included both loan types and I really wasn’t aware of the differences before I accepted them. Today with compounding interest on my loans, I’m now still looking at a 10 year repayment timeline for my $31,467.08 balance. Though the $500 ALA scholarship didn’t seem like a lot when I received it as a college freshman, the importance of taking every opportunity to cut down the principal debt amount and avoid borrowing money is a lesson that I will never forget. As I listened to students ask questions of Drayton on loan type differences at the workshop, I knew I would have benefited by taking a closer look at the fine print on my own loan packages.

The “Financial Dilemmas” Exercise

In an exercise titled “Financial Dilemmas,” Drayton posed a common challenge for incoming college freshman. Broadly, it is the question of money vs. time.  Students were given three job scenarios – each with their own pros and cons that varied from pay, minimum weekly time commitment, commute time, and varying benefits specific to each role.

The workshop students chose from different job situations, some prioritizing higher pay versus health benefits, or free coffee versus being on campus. Though there was no strictly right or wrong answer, this activity exposed students to the types of decisions they will  have to make if they want to pay for basic necessities but still have the appropriate amount of time for their studies. College is foremost about education.

Drayton’s exercise resonated with me the most because I had a version of each job scenario in my undergraduate education and it took four years for me to understand which scenario would actually have been best for me. From being a barista on campus, to working at a dentistry that was a 40-minute drive from home, I often attempted to juggle school, work, and sleep. At the workshop, students thought the highest paying job was the best option but they did not consider time commitment to the job and job flexibility vs. time commitment to their studies as vital factors in making smart decisions. I understood their thinking because I didn’t think of time management either when i was enrolled in school.

The Importance of Banking, Saving and Budgeting

The second half of the workshop was conducted by “How Not To Be Broke” partner and sponsor Royal Business Bank (RBB). Mona Fontela, Senior Vice President and Director of Community Development and A CRA Officer for RBB led the presentation which focused on banking topics including building credit, debit vs. credit cards, saving money, and budgeting.

Royal Business Bank Senior Vice President Mona Fontella presented the second half of the “How Not To Be Broke” workshop. She offered smart banking tips and shared personal anecdotes of poor banking decisions she made as young adult. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Though some may find the concepts simple – most of the group of 17 & 18 year olds (and myself, a 24-year-old “adult”) had never seriously sat down and thought to define common terms such as income and expenses. Fontela offered a framework for measuring the amount of money coming in—financial aid, job salary etc.—and money going out for expenses like rent, food, and college expenses. She offered thoughts on creating budgets and adhering to them, which is something I hadn’t done until I was a full year out of college. Creating a budget was not on my radar as a high school student and I soon learned that it wasn’t on the radars of most of those attending the workshop.

Fontela said that funding higher education involves a combination of making smart life choices, knowing the differences between loan types, but also managing banking basics. “I think a high percentage of [students] are going broke because of student loans…not necessarily credit cards. So are [student loans] affecting their savings account? Yes.”

At the end of the “How Not to Be Broke” workshop, I was ecstatic to see students thinking critically about what combination would best suit their own funding needs. Students walked away from the workshop with practical thinking skills, the start of a financial plan, and confidence on how to begin to pay for their higher education.

With emerging efforts like this, I believe the next generation won’t let the financial hurdles of their goals stop them from changing the world – hopefully with a stomach full of something more than bananas and granola bars.

Armed with financial know how, I believe the next generation won’t let cost hurdles stop them from achieving their goals and changing the world—hopefully with a stomach full of something more than bananas and granola bars.

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1 thought on “Getting a College Degree Without Financial Literacy Is Possible…But Not Recommended”

  1. Shirley Tatsuno

    Thank you Dominic for being brave and writing about your experience as a college student, juggling paying for your education and living expenses by working odd jobs. I am so sorry you got hurt at one of your jobs. At the same time you were studying hard to keep up good grades.

    As an apartment owner and from talking with people, I know there are many students with $25,000 plus loans. What is sad to me is often their job is low paying. Paying for rent and living expenses takes so much of their paycheck. It will take many years to pay off the loan or it may not get paid off.

    I thought this seminar was an excellent idea. Financial literacy and budgeting will help a person for the rest of his or her life. I might add I wish investing was also taught at school. So many people of all ages do not have even basic knowledge of investing which is necessary to make wise decisions for retirement income.

    Establishing good credit is very important. I remember a fellow worker who had bad credit. He was so frustrated. No one would rent an apartment to him. He really worked hard to improve his credit and vowed never to have bad credit again.

    Getting as many scholarships as possible is a smart goal. This year, it was an honor for me to be a part of presenting Grassroots scholarships to Alhambra High School seniors.

    Some suggestions to lower the cost of college are:
    I like Cal Grants and Federal Pell Grants. If you can qualify, you do not have to pay the money back.
    Going to a community college for 2 years then transferring to a state or university college really saves a lot of money also.

    Dominic’s #5 thought is very important. Weigh the pros and cons of jobs while in school. Is the pay really worth the study time? I also think it is very important while in high school to really think about what you excel in. Find out what the job is like on an everyday basis. Does it fit the lifestyle you want? Students should ask these questions to people who have jobs they are interested in. I have seen people who did not think about lifestyle and regret their job choice after studying so hard and a very expensive education or they quit their job and got an entirely different job unrelated to their education. They still have a huge school loan.

    Starting your adult life with no education loan or a manageable loan will make your life so much easier and enjoyable.