Thursday, March 26, 2015

Help for poor, despairing college students

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

It is graduation season. Financially challenged students and parents must be in distress because of unpaid school fees and other expenses that need to be met in order for these students to be on the official roster of graduates and receive their diplomas—and on stage if possible. What they go through is different from school opening woes. This is the last hurdle, so to speak, and to be denied the long-awaited moment on the stage because of unmet payments can cause a student’s emotion to spiral down to the dark depths.

Today’s kids, how fragile they are, one might say, compared to poor, rural students of yore who went to school barefoot with little or no food in their stomachs, or their urban counterparts who toiled in sweat shops and dingy basements in order to send themselves to school. They feel no shame or diminishment for having gone through all that, only pride that in the end they reached the summit of their humble dreams and proceeded to make a life different from where they came from. And even giving back.

Despondency gets the better of students who are not able to continue what they have begun or are denied participation in school activities such as graduation because of financial issues. But there’s hope for these haplessly situated students.

I recently learned the good news that Pasig City Rep. Roman Romulo has urged the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) and the country’s 112 state universities and colleges (SUCs) to establish a “fast-acting financial aid program” for students in dire need of help to pay for their cost of living and schooling. Romulo is the chair of the House committee on higher and technical education.

Romulo urged the CHEd and the SUCs to put up mechanisms for “quick-release grants,” which, he said, should be based on a unified set of guidelines as to potential beneficiaries. “This is one practical approach to helping students facing extreme financial difficulties while in college,” Romulo said.

By the way, I don’t know Romulo personally and have not even met him. I just thought the info that landed in my e-mail box, which is about his move to help financially strapped college students is good news worth writing about. His call comes in the wake of what he called “the haunting reality of student suicides.”

Romulo cited the cases of Rosanna Sanfuego and Kristel Tejada whom he described as “financially distressed students” who ended their lives. Sanfuego was a 16-year-old freshman at the Cagayan State University in Tuguegarao City who allegedly took her own life last Feb. 25 after she became despondent because she could not pay her school and dormitory fees. She also experienced “persistent hunger problems while studying.”

Two years ago Tejada, a University of the Philippines behavioral science student, drank silver cleaner because of unpaid school fees. Her death sparked student protests.

While suicide experts stress that blame should never be heaped on persons other than the suicidal persons themselves, it cannot be denied that there are triggering factors that send these despairing persons to the edge of despair. It is true that some persons are more resilient than others. Some poor students are made of strong stuff, others are more fragile. But should failure to pay school fees drive a young person with dreams to despair? With cash-strapped parents and feeling hopeless, a poor student could cave in and say goodbye to life.

No money and no one to turn to—that’s major for a young person. Compare them with their counterparts in affluent countries who wallow in utter despair and end it all because of family and societal pressure on them to achieve academic excellence.

“School authorities need to do a lot of soul-searching,” Romulo said, pointing out that college students are at a vulnerable age and can be easily overwhelmed by hard times, especially if they have nobody else to run to for help. “SUCs have to assure indigent students that they can obtain immediate financial relief from a highly responsive support system.”

Assurance, that is a major boost. But the faster the better.

Romulo said that the CHEd and the SUCs have ample funds to support financially distressed students. He added that this year alone the national government is spending some P7.7 billion for post-high school scholarships. SUCs have a combined P3.5 billion available for scholarships. This is apart from the CHEd’s P2.2-billion allotment for student financial aid. The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority has another P2 billion for its Training for Work Scholarship Program. Romulo sponsored the House-approved Unified Financial Assistance System for Higher and Technical Education (UniFAST), which aims to enable a greater number of college students from disadvantaged families to access state-sponsored financial assistance.

Now nearing Senate approval, UniFAST is expected to improve the distribution of college scholarships, study grants, grants-in-aid and low-cost educational loans. Romulo introduced the Iskolar ng Bayan Program, now Republic Act No. 10648, which gives scholarships in SUCs to the top 10 graduates of every public high school.

But what about those who are not in the top 10 but are hard-working and highly motivated? They, not the nerds, might yet become the great achievers in their fields after college. Let us not forget them. And let me add here that tuition alone is not the problem. The poor student has to spend for fare, food, lodging, books and school projects. Also clothes and shoes.

For those who are not scholars, there is Romulo’s proposed Voluntary Student Loan Program by Private Banks, which the House has passed on third and final reading and is now awaiting Senate approval.#