Student Loan Crisis Hits Pa. Students

Marlo Johnson and Emmanuel Garcia are top students, who would be the first in their families to go to college. Their frantic search for money to pay for tuition has become an all-too common ordeal for many poor and middle-class students and their families.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For months, we've been following two teenagers from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as they struggle to pay for college. Marlo Johnson and Emmanuel Garcia graduated from one of Harrisburg's best high schools. But like many college-bound students this year, they spent the summer frantically searching for loans and grants to cover their tuition.

As the school year begins, NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story of how things turned out.

Mr. EMMANUEL GARCIA (Student): Mr. Sanchez, this is Emmanuel Garcia.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Emmanuel Garcia, 18, could hardly contain himself when he called me to share some good news for a change. Earlier this summer, he and his parents had failed to raise or borrow the remaining $5,000 he needed for college this fall. Plan B was community college.

But then, something totally unexpected happened. An NPR listener offered to help Emmanuel after hearing his story.

Mr. GARCIA: And she said she was touched by it and she was willing to give me money to help me go to college. I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Good bye.

SANCHEZ: Several days later, I sat down with Emmanuel in his home across the kitchen table and talked about his good fortune.

Mr. GARCIA: That lady, she had to be good luck, because the next day, I found out I get this, I found I get that, everything worked out miraculously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: This and that included a huge, last-minute scholarship from the Pennsylvania Board of Governors - a generous combination of federal grants, work study, even a small loan from Shippensburg University, a state school where Emmanuel is going to major in business.

As for that lady who called Emmanuel out of the blue offering help, he's going to call and tell her.

Mr. GARCIA: Thank you for offering, but, you know, everything worked out and, you know, I don't have to take your money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: Emmanuel will be the first in his family to go off to college. But there was another student in the story, 17-year-old Marlo Johnson.

Ms. MARLO JOHNSON (Student): I felt like I kind of failed in a way, to be honest, and that discourages me.

SANCHEZ: Marlo ranked third in her graduating high school class and left with glowing recommendations from teachers. But nothing thrilled her more than being accepted by a prestigious pre-med program at Susquehanna University - a private college with a $38,000 tuition. The school wanted her so much it gave her a $15,000 scholarship. But Marlo and her family could not come up with the rest of the money. No one was more discouraged than Marlo's mother, Carmen Johnson.

Ms. CARMEN JOHNSON: I thought that we would at least be able to get the federal loan. I was really shocked when that didn't happen.

SANCHEZ: Mrs. Johnson, a legal secretary, then looked at how much her family was going to have to borrow for Marlo's first year of college - nearly $20,000. She was floored by the high interest rates banks were charging. So she told Marlo there was no way she could ever take home that kind of debt.

Ms. C. JOHNSON: And she kept saying, well, mom, don't worry about it, don't worry about it. I was really upset. I felt like I failed her, in a way, because I couldn't save up for money for her, for her to go to school.

SANCHEZ: Marlo's father has been in and out of hospitals, forcing Mrs. Johnson to dig deep into the family savings, including Marlo's savings for college. Living paycheck to paycheck, she says, that's what being middleclass means these days.

Ms. C. JOHNSON: So our kids don't go to school, what do we get? Nothing. We're on our own.

SANCHEZ: Many parents feel the same way, says Michael Reed, a principal at SciTech High, the school that Marlo and Emmanuel graduated from last spring.

Mr. MICHAEL REED (Principal, SciTech High School): I mean, right now, it's estimated that you would have to put $300 a month, 18 years before student goes in, to pay for a collage education. If a family has to decide between putting the $300 a month or putting food on the table, they're going to put food on the table.

SANCHEZ: It's a choice that has hit parents at this school especially hard. SciTech High School is the most academically rigorous school in Harrisburg. Almost all its students are poor, immigrant, minority kids. It's no longer enough to be ambitious, really smart and academically prepared for college, says Reed. Increasingly, it's all about what your family can afford.

Mr. REED: It should not be, in this day and age, this difficult for any student to get into higher education, particularly when they are qualified.

SANCHEZ: Reed says it's cruel for kids to work so hard and then have college doors slammed in their faces because they couldn't come up with the money for tuition. That's what happened to half of the 60 students who graduated with Marlo and Emmanuel last spring. Some have postponed college all together, most, including Marlo, have enrolled in community college.

She's given up her dream of attending Susquehanna University, but like always, Marlo's looking on the bright side.

Ms. M. JOHNSON: Well, I do have enough to pay tuition, thank God. $1,750 each semester, so I'm covered for the year.

SANCHEZ: We'll be checking in on Marlo and Emmanuel later this fall.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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