S.D. Success Story Clouded by Plans to Cut Student Aid

Times Staff Writer

Victor and Luz Escobedo live in a modest home in one of San Diego's poorer neighborhoods. They immigrated here from Mexico five years ago, bringing with them eight sons and a dream for each.

Victor, who had gone to work at age 9 to help support his family after his father died, wanted his boys to have something he was denied: the opportunity for a good education and a career.

Already, America has worked out very much the way the Escobedos hoped it would. Five of their sons--there are no daughters--are students at either UC San Diego or San Diego State University. Another is a high school senior who will enter UCSD in the fall. The remaining boys, ages 14 and 13, seem certain to follow.

Several factors have contributed to the Escobedos' success. One is the work ethic: The five college students each hold down part-time jobs and have earned several academic honors, and one was an all-American soccer player in community college. Another factor is the family bond that makes it seem natural, not to mention frugal, for the brothers to live at home throughout their college days.

A third factor--the only one that appears in jeopardy--is college financial aid. Four of the brothers have received or qualified for tax-supported government grants or loans that so far total more than $10,000. "Here, you get paid to study," said a Victor Escobedo, with a son providing the translation from Spanish.

But now, President Reagan has proposed a $2.3-billion cut in federal aid for college students. And the Escobedo family would be among the victims.

The problem is that Victor Escobedo, a welder at National Steel and Shipyard Co., makes too much money. Under the Reagan Administration proposal, eligibility for grants, direct government loans with 4% interest, and subsidized work-study jobs would be limited to students from families with an adjusted gross income of $25,000 or less. Escobedo figures his adjusted gross income for 1984 to be $25,657.

The present system for aid to students places the direct grant and loan cap at $27,700 and provides flexible rules that take into account the size of a family, the number of children attending college and other expense factors. The Reagan proposal does not provide such flexibility; the rules are the same, regardless of family size and other factors.

Adjusted gross income, unlike taxable income, does not include deductions for dependents and interest payments. For example, the Escobedos' adjusted gross income for 1983 was $24,448; their taxable income, with seven of the children declared as dependents, was $10,610. Six sons are declared as dependents in their 1985 statement.

The President's plan also would limit to $4,000 a year the amount a student could receive from federal grants, loans and subsidized jobs--a rule that would especially affect students at more expensive colleges and universities.

The Administration also wants to make federally backed student loans with 8% interest available only to students from families with incomes of $32,500 or less. The Escobedos still would qualify for those loans.

Education Secretary William J. Bennett has said the purpose of the new guidelines is to limit aid to low-income students and require the middle-class and upper-class families to cover more fully their educational costs.

But critics wonder if the Escobedos are what the Reagan Administration means by "middle class." Advocates of strong financial aid programs argue that society as a whole benefits by investing in higher education for industrious, capable and needy people such as the Escobedos.

Few expect Congress to adopt the President's plan without substantial revisions. In previous years, Congress has largely protected student aid programs against massive cuts proposed by Reagan.

But college and university officials say they are worried. "The people spearheading our efforts are really afraid," said Tom Rutter, director of student financial services at UCSD. "They are very concerned that Congress might cave in because of the pressure to decrease the budget deficit."

Here is how Reagan's proposed student aid plan would affect just one of the Escobedo brothers, 19-year-old Jaime, a freshman at UCSD:

The UCSD financial services office figures that Jaime, as a student living in his parents' home, needs $4,450 for the 1984-85 school year.

After analyzing information provided in Jaime's student aid application and his parents' tax forms, the university expects Jaime to personally contribute $800 and his parents to contribute $18, for an overall family contribution of $818.

That leaves $3,632 to be provided through financial aid. Jaime qualified for money through four programs: $1,425 in a federal Pell Grant, $982 in a state Cal Grant, $775 in a federal Supplementary Educational Opportunity Grant and $450 in a federal National Direct Student Loan at 4% interest payable in 10 1/2 years.

But under the Reagan Administration plan--because his father's income is $657 above the $25,000 cap--Jaime would not qualify for the two federal grants and the federal loan. Moreover, his Cal Grant may also be in jeopardy. The existing Cal Grant fund has been infused with $76 million in federal money, but the proposed budget would reduce that contribution to zero.

Jaime's options would be to turn to 8% federally guaranteed bank loans, or work more and take a longer time to finish college.

If Reagan's budget is adopted, "it would take us a long time to finish," said the eldest of Escobedo brothers, 24-year-old Victor. "But we would find ways."

The Escobedo family, it seems, has always found ways.

Their home is on a dead-end street in Southeast San Diego. Inside, there are only so many chairs and places on the sofa, so some of the brothers stand when visitors come. The family projects warmth, a sense of humor and a shared pride when they tell their story.

Victor and Luz Escobedo married in central Mexico in 1959, then moved to cities on the border of California--first Mexicali, then Tijuana. Their migration to the United States on Jan. 27, 1980, culminated 18 years of effort. Their first application for residency worker status in 1962 was denied. A second application in 1965 was also rejected.

Later, after the family filed a third application for immigration in 1970, Luz Escobedo twice visited cousins in Los Angeles. She chose opportune times for the visits--the two youngest boys, Gustavo and Arturo, were born in Los Angeles. At the time, the fact that the two boys were U.S. citizens by birth smoothed the path for immigration, though the policy has since changed.

The family was finally approved for immigration in 1974, the same year Victor Escobedo landed his job at the San Diego shipyard. He commuted from Tijuana daily, trying to save enough money to afford to move to the United States.

The Escobedo brothers spoke little English when they arrived five years ago, but now they are fluent. They seemed to have distinguished themselves wherever they passed, first at Clairemont High School, which most of the brothers attended through the school district's voluntary busing program, and then at college.

In all, there is Victor, a senior engineering student at SDSU who had won a scholarship sponsored by General Electric; Sergio, 23, the former All-American soccer player at Southwestern Community College, now a junior engineering student at SDSU; Benjamin, 21, an engineering student at UCSD who also won a General Electric scholarship; Maximo, 20, a graphic arts student at SDSU, and Jaime, who envisions a career in chemistry.

Then there is Javier, a senior at Clairemont High School headed for UCSD. Last year, he was honored as the school's outstanding junior student in science and math. Gustavo is a freshman at Clairemont High and Arturo is an eighth-grader at Marston Junior High.

Clairemont teachers like to tell how Max and Javier both started in English as a Second Language their first year, moved into regular English the next year, then honors English the next.

The Mexican-American Education Assn. has honored three of the brothers as outstanding Latino graduates from Clairemont High. "Javier will probably be next," Max said.

Victor, who works 20 hours a week helping design computers for Hewlett-Packard, is picking up the cost of Sergio's education. Sergio is the only one of the college students who has never received some financial aid. Earlier, he had failed to apply for assistance, believing his grades weren't good enough, but now he is hoping to qualify.

The brothers say they plan to remain in the United States and will eventually become U.S. citizens. The best-paying engineering jobs are with defense contractors, Victor said, "and they always ask about your citizenship."

Asked how to account for the brothers' success, Benjamin said, "We just give all the credit to our parents."

The senior Victor Escobedo responded with a smile. Luz Escobedo was asked about the possibility that funding for her sons' education might be cut. She said it wasn't the government's fault that they had eight children, but she has been grateful for the help so far.

She doesn't want her sons to move from home until they marry; that is the Mexican way. Some of the brothers have considered living on campus or in an off-campus apartment--options that would make them eligible for more financial aid. But they say they are comfortable at home.

Of course, they explain, it's easier now.

A few weeks ago, the garage was converted into two bedrooms. Now the brothers sleep two to a room instead of four to a room.

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