UC President Janet Napolitano (left) told Hercules yearbook editor Alexis Nontha-Vaughan and photographer Brianna Lee their school's student body represents the future of California. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
University of California President Janet Napolitano strode into the Hercules High School gymnasium last week to address a couple hundred of the school's sophomores and juniors as part of a UC college fair.
It was the first time Napolitano had visited a high school in West Contra Costa County, and Hercules was her choice, she said, because the school's mix of students represents the future of California. The student body is divided about evenly between Latinx, African American, Asian and Filipino students. About half the school's students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many are potential first-generation college goers who come from immigrant families.
They were Napolitano's target.
"We get a lot of students from Hercules High," she told the students. "We want more."
Napolitano, who plans to retire next year, likes to tout the progress her administration has made to increase the number of first-generation students at UC campuses. Two years ago, UC enlisted over 1,000 faculty throughout the system who were first-generation students themselves to step forward and mentor newcomers. In 2016, there were 88,242 first-generation undergraduates system-wide, about a quarter of them coming in as transfers from California community colleges. Napolitano said by the time she steps down in August, 42% of UC's undergrads will be the first in their families to attend college.
"You can afford a UC education," Napolitano told the Hercules students. "If you come from a family that makes less than $80,000 a year, you pay no tuition or fees to attend the University of California. And there is other financial aid available to help you with the cost of housing and books."
But those room-and-board costs can be enough to derail a first-generation student's aspirations, according to Chyna Oyola, a college adviser at Hercules High.
"Sometimes it can be a make-or-break factor. It can be as much as tuition depending on where you are going," said Oyola. "Even if they get scholarships, it takes $10,000 plus to go to a four-year. If there are no scholarships it is either out-of-pocket or you don’t go."
Hercules High Principal Paul Mansingh said many first-generation college goers from his school have other reasons for not wanting to attend a UC, including distance from home.
"Moving away from family, sometimes 600 miles away ... there are a lot of reasons why a student would want to stay close to home and go to a community college instead: community, finances, family and food," said Mansingh.
Still, Napolitano's message resonated with Penelope Wu, a junior at Hercules High. She's thinking a lot about college right now.
"It's really stressing me out because next year I have to start my applications," she said.
Wu said she thinks Napolitano's message that Hercules students can get into and afford the UCs if they try, is realistic.
"I know a lot of high school students are all like 'Oh my gosh I can't get into college, I don't have good grades.' but I believe if junior year they start thinking about it and put in the effort, if they really want to go, they will get in," she said. "I'm shooting for a UC but I know many of my classmates want to save a lot more money ... I also believe going to community college for two years and then transferring is a very good path to take."
Principal Mansingh said his school has partnered with UC Berkeley to try and get more of its students into UC campuses. Last year 88 students applied, 58 were accepted and 40 ended up enrolling, out of a senior class of 250.
Mansingh credits his partnership with the college adviser Oyola with helping get Hercules students through the process. Oyola is one of 52 advisers UC Berkeley sends to high schools across the state to help under-privileged students apply to and afford college. She's in her second year at Hercules as part of a college advising corps which hires recent college graduates to return to their communities as mentors.
"I want to work toward educational equity," Oyola said. "So when they recruited me I was like 'Oh wow, I can get paid to do this?'"
The UC Berkeley outreach program has been around for over a decade but it wasn't until last year that UC Merced replicated the program. UC Santa Barbara followed suit this year, and UCLA plans to start a similar program in 2020. With the typical ratio of California high school counselors to students at nearly 700 to 1, the addition of these mentors focused on college admissions in under served schools makes a difference.
Oyola works to help students like Antania Ford apply and find financial aid, a process parents who haven't already attended college may not be familiar with.
"I'm thinking about UCLA, Riverside, Santa Barbara. A lot of my family has been there and I've been there for breaks and it's my type of environment," said Ford.
Ford said she's willing to pay "whatever," even if it means borrowing. "It's really expensive. Sometimes I think about going to a community for two [years] to do the regular basic classes and then transfer to save a little bit more money and help my parents," she said.
Student Housing Costs May Be the Biggest Hurdle
Despite UC waiving tuition and fees for students from families earning less than $80,000 per year, California's affordable housing crisis is a huge barrier for an increasing number of students.
"The cost of housing in many instances is higher than the cost of tuition," said Napolitano. "So covering that housing cost is really important."
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But progress toward creating more affordable housing for students has been slow, especially in Berkeley.
A UC Berkeley Master Plan Task Force report found UC Berkeley alone would need 15,600 beds to house 50% of undergrads and 25% of graduate students, about double its current number of beds.
As of 2016, the UC was providing housing, on average, for 38.1% of undergraduates and for 19.6% of graduate students across the state.
"We are on a housing construction binge," said Napolitano. "Since I announced the presidential student housing initiative in 2016 we have added 17,000 beds and we have another 12,000 beds on the drawing board throughout the system. All the student housing that we build has to be substantially below market rent. Plus, when students live in student housing they have better retention, they form community, we call them living and learning communities. It really enriches the college experience."
Hercules High junior Emilio De La Paz, 16, said he was surprised Napolitano came to his school.
"But I have a feeling she sees a lot of potential in this school. I feel like everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. I'm trying to prepare to get to a UC, I think it's doable," he said.
This story is part of our series The College Try about what it takes to get a higher degree in California.