Alec Miller plans to move up in the ranks at In-N-Out Burger and save money before attending college. Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee



When Alec Miller entered high school in 2008, he did not expect that by the time he graduated he would have a full-time job with the eventual possibility of a six-figure salary, while many of his peers would be going off to college and incurring a six-figure debt.
Miller, 18, who graduated from Santa Rosa’s Mesa High School in December, has been working at In-N-Out Burger in Santa Rosa since 2010. In two years, he believes, he will be eligible for a position as a fourth manager. The highest restaurant position of first manager comes with a $100,000 to $120,000 annual salary, which could take four years to attain.
“A lot of people go to college for years and come out with debt. … I have a job so I can make some money and then go to college,” Miller said.
Miller’s decision to go into full-time work out of high school is one of a number of possibilities that high school seniors are looking at as the cost of a four-year college education continues to increase, calling into question its value.
In the 2011-2012 academic year, university cost increases continued to far outpace the rate of inflation. One extreme example reported by the College Board found that in California, the in-state price of a four-year public tuition and fees rose 21 percent.
But some graduating seniors are willing to take on the financial burden right after high school. Maria Carrillo High School senior Michelle Shao in the fall will be attending Harvard University, where tuition is $38,480.

Michelle Shao is going to Harvard after high school. She views the $38,480 tuition as “an investment, not a cost.” Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee

“The tuition cost is certainly not ideal … Yet with the high costs, I believe it’s still worth it,” said Shao, who sees her higher education career as “more an investment, not a cost.”
To combat the high price of attending a four-year private university, Shao has applied for numerous scholarships and plans to work while in school. She is a National Merit Finalist, which comes with a $2,500 scholarship, and as a junior she won a $400 academic scholarship through the Distinguished Young Women of Sonoma County competition.
“I know how much (college) costs, so I’m going to try and make it all worth it. I plan to grasp every opportunity and not waste my parents’ money,” said Shao, who plans to major in economics and eventually attend graduate school.
Sharon Baer, a local, private college counselor, warns there are other costs students need to take into account besides tuition. These “hidden costs” can include books, travel and the cost of living, which, depending on the location of the school, can be quite expensive.
Baer also advises students that in the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult for students at California public universities to take all their required classes to graduate in four years.
“Private schools are pretty good at helping you matriculate in four, even in public out-of-state schools,” she said.
After working with students for so many years, Baer has seen students adjust to rising college tuition in recent years.
“I’ve had families discuss gap years to work and pay for school, and I see many more kids working while in college,” she said.
Keith Donaldson, a counselor at Maria Carrillo High, also has seen an increase in students who are looking at other options, such as trade schools and even the military. He said that when viewed as an “algebraic expression,” the college process “has more variables now than ever.”
One alternative to the cost of a four-year university is Santa Rosa Junior College.
At SRJC, students can finish lower division course requirements and transfer to a four-year university. In the fall, SRJC anticipates a total enrollment of 25,000 students.

Ali Mansour is going to Santa Rosa Junior College after graduation. “It’s not always about what school you go to,” he said. “It’s about what you do and how much effort you put in.” Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee

Ali Mansour, a Maria Carrillo High senior, plans to be among them — and after two years transfer to a UC campus.
“It’s not always about what school you go to. It’s about what you do and how much effort you put in,” said Mansour, who plans to eventually attain a graduate degree.
But transferring to a four-year university after only two years at SRJC is easier said than done because that requires a student take a full schedule of 12 units a semester.
“It takes a very motivated student, but it’s still possible,” said Diane Traversi, SRJC’s director of admissions and enrollment.
Over the summer, SRJC will be increasing the cost of each unit from $36 to $46. Depending on the major, attending SRJC will cost $1,000 and $3,000 a semester for those with a full schedule.
Traversi said despite the fee hikes, SRJC still has “the most affordable tuition in the entire nation. … At the SRJC you are getting a top quality education for lower division work at a fraction of the price.”
Baer, who has worked for years with students from all over Sonoma County, advises students to remember that during these turbulent economic times, “there’s no one way to do this. It’s a journey, and students need to figure out what works best for them and their family.”