Recession Offers Hard Lessons In Paying For College

About This Series

This is the last in a yearlong series of stories tracking Emmanuel Garcia and Marlo Johnson's post-high school journey amid the college loan crisis. The series won the 2008 radio award from the Education Writers Association.

Emmanuel Garcia sometimes shakes his head in amazement: He made it to college and just finished his first year at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

It wasn't easy navigating his way through student loans amid a worldwide financial crisis — as well as a private family crisis.

Emmanuel's classmate Marlo Johnson wasn't quite so lucky. Despite having a scholarship to a private university, she couldn't come up with the money to pay for tuition, housing and books. She spent the year working for minimum wage and took a few courses at a community college.

Emmanuel and Marlo were among the thousands of graduating seniors who were broadsided by the economic crisis. The two Harrisburg, Pa., teenagers with big dreams and no money both say they learned a lot about the real world in the past year.

A Universal Crisis And A Personal Crisis

Paying for school seemed like an insurmountable problem to Emmanuel last summer. "My parents said, 'We're here for you,' but I knew how much they're in debt," he said. He scraped together the scholarships, loans and donations to pay for school without needing his parents' help.

He says his first semester at a small private college was a big adjustment from his neighborhood in Harrisburg. He's the first in his family of immigrants to go to college, and he felt a little out of place. But he settled into college life, made some friends and got high grades. Then, he came home for Christmas break and discovered that his father was on his way to jail.

"It was like the worst time in the world," Emmanuel said. He worried about how his mom would survive without him. "It was sad to see everybody crying in my family. At that point, I actually thought about leaving college." His mother's sister moved in with the family, and Emmanuel felt like she could help out enough to allow him to go back to school at Shippensburg.

His grades took a dramatic turn for the worse over the next few months. "It hit me really hard: Everything is on you," Emmanuel said. When all the dust was cleared, he had pulled a B average for the year. He gets to keep his scholarship.

A Year In Limbo

Marlo Johnson couldn't go to the college that she'd dreamed of, despite her stellar high school transcript. Her family barely made enough money to pay all the bills every month — yet it was too much for her to qualify for Pell Grants. "In order for you to qualify, you might as well be dirt poor," she said.

Marlo spent most of the year working at McDonald's. A few weeks ago, she got fed up with the job and walked out. "I was coming home greasy every single night, later than 1 o'clock in the morning." She lamented that one of her co-workers with less seniority got promoted before her. The hours were long and the pay lousy.

Marlo soon got a job in the call center at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. It's the state's biggest provider and guarantor of student loans. She now spends most of the day talking to anxious students about their financial situation. She says she's become a student loan "expert."

Marlo plans to enroll in Shippensburg University this fall. It wasn't her first-choice college, but she likes what she's heard about their nursing program. Even though she'll be a year behind, she says not going to college was never an option. "I see my dad struggling, and he never finished college," she says.

Looking back at her senior year in high school, Marlo feels like she was under a "protective shelter" that didn't actually help her. She wishes her school had warned her about how bad the economy really was, and had prepared her for the roadblocks she would face trying to get to college. "You need more than that checklist. You need a reality check," she says.

A Shrinking Pool Of Money

At SciTech High School in Harrisburg, from which Marlo and Emmanuel graduated last year, Principal Mike Reed says he learned a few things through the economic crisis, too. He's trying to get his students ready for the worst.

"Last year, towards the end of the year, when the banks were pulling out and our students were left with lots of questions that couldn't be answered, we developed a plan to better educate our students and parents," he says.

Reed introduced a course for ninth-graders called Financial Planning for College. He says getting student loans isn't nearly as big of a crisis for graduating seniors this year, although it's still a problem. This year's valedictorian, Alizah Thornton, is a perfect example. She is thousands of dollars short of what she needs to pay for college.

"I worked hard throughout my high school career," in the hopes of going away to college, she said. She took three advanced placement classes and three classes at the community college before graduating.

"It doesn't seem like I have anything to show for it," she said. At the same starting point Emmanuel and Marlo were at a year ago, she worries that all the talk about rewards for hard work is just talk.

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