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Budget cuts, tough economy mean fewer available slots, more worry for Sonoma County's graduating seniors

  • Jocelin Padilla works with fifth graders at the Foss Creek after school program in Healdsburg, Thursday March 29, 2012. With a full slate of activities, Padilla hasn't let senioritis set in, having been accepted by six of the 11 colleges she applied to including being on the wait list of two others. From Windsor, the Healdsburg High School senior is 17.(Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Facing one of the biggest decisions in a teenager's life, Jocelin Padilla is at a loss.

A Healdsburg High School senior with a 4.0 academic average, Padilla, 17, is sorting her options for a college education.

She applied to 11 schools, was accepted by six, put on a waitlist by two, and was denied by three, including UC Berkeley.

"I really don't know where I want to go," she said. "It's stressful."

Many of the more than 5,500 graduating seniors in Sonoma County share Padilla's anxiety, facing the annual spring thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict by school admissions officials scattered around the state and nation.

Compounding their dilemma this year is a record flood of about 600,000 applications to the nine-campus University of California and 23-school California State University systems, both battered by state budget cuts.

Also clouding the annual college rush is a double whammy of rising tuition costs and a persistent economic slump, eroding the affordability of higher education.

"The kids are still achieving," said Sharon Howell, head counselor at Casa Grande High in Petaluma. But the home equity used in the past to finance college has evaporated for many families, she said.

"That's the new reality," Howell said, noting that family job losses are also deterring "college-ready" students from enrolling in four-year schools.

The UC system, which received 126,299 freshman applications for fall admission — a record for the eighth straight year and a 19 percent increase over last year — has the capacity but not the funding to enroll more California students.

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