BELL GARDENS : City Loans to Help Defray College Fees

A city-sponsored student loan program should make the dream of higher education more attainable to dozens of students annually while building community stability and pride, officials said.

Beginning next month, city residents can apply for no-interest loans through the city's Academic Pursuit Program to help defray the cost of tuition, books, room and board, transportation and other educational expenses.

The program, using the interest created by $3 million in city reserves, will fund thousands of dollars in loans in exchange for community service work, said Karen Nobrega, assistant city manager.

In Bell Gardens, where the per capita income is about $5,000, the program could mean the difference between a college education and a high school diploma, said Mike Padilla, a counselor at Bell Gardens High School. It will also give students the opportunity to attend private and out-of-state schools, he said.

"Most of my students are low-income, so the majority need and receive financial aid," Padilla said. "But many times it's not enough. This will give them more choices."

Abel Alamillo, a 17-year-old senior has his sights set on Boston Univeristy, where he would like to study broadcast journalism but estimated that he needs at least $25,000 for each year of study. "I'm glad the city is offering this loan," he said, "It will make things a lot easier."

"I don't think there's another program like it in the state in terms of magnitude," said Nobrega. About $120,000 in loans should be available in the first year of the program, she said.

The city's loans will help offset the costs of bachelor's, master's, doctorate, law and medical school programs. All recipients will be required to perform some community service. It is still unclear how the loans will be awarded or what type of volunteer work will be required, officials said.

Students will be required to begin repaying the loans within one year of completing a program or leaving school. However, part of each loan can be repaid with city-sponsored internships or additional community service, Nobrega said.

For a city with a 30% or more transiency rate, the program has a side benefit. Because participants are required to have lived in the city for four consecutive years and students' legal guardians must continue to live in Bell Gardens while the student is accepting loan money, the program encourages families to remain in the city.

To be eligible for the program, students must also have a 2.5 grade-point average, a good attendance record and proof of acceptance at an accredited four-year or junior college. The deadline for applications is May 12.

Information: (310) 806-7700.

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