For Two Pa. Teens, Two Paths To College

Emmanuel Garcia, 18, and Marlo Johnson, 17, both of Harrisburg, Pa., spent most of the summer wondering whether they could get the loans and grants they needed to pay for college. The money came through for Garcia, but things didn't work out so well for Johnson.

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This year, we've been following two students from Pennsylvania as they struggle to pay for college. Their families don't have a lot of money, and fewer lenders are providing loans. Since we last heard from them, both students started college. And NPR's Claudio Sanchez wanted to find out how they're doing.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Every couple of months, I've been checking in on Emmanuel Garcia, 18, and Marlo Johnson, 17. And every time, Marlo has been pretty upbeat. But not this time, not today.

Ms. MARLO JOHNSON (Student, Harrisburg Community College): I never thought I would actually come to the point where I hate school, absolutely hate it. I don't even want to be in college anymore. This is just crazy.

SANCHEZ: Never in the six months that I've known Marlo did I think she'd give up. Not Marlo, not the tenacious, independent young woman who swore that nothing would stop her from pursuing a medical career, no matter what. When I met Marlo, she was about to graduate from one of the top schools in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, SciTech High School. She ranked third in her class, had glowing recommendations from teachers, and had just been accepted to a prestigious pre-med program. Here's Marlo last May.

(Soundbite of interview, May 2008)

Ms. JOHNSON: I'm really focusing on Susquehanna University because I want to become a registered nurse.

SANCHEZ: It wasn't just a dream. Marlo had a plan. And she was absolutely sure the $38,000 cost would not be an obstacle. Susquehanna was giving her $15,000 in scholarships, and she was certain that government loans, along with a paid internship at a hospital, would cover the rest.

Ms. JOHNSON: There are some hospitals that will pay you to get a higher education. And when I become a registered nurse, there's this international nursing, you know, like Paris, France, anywhere. And then I'll be able to either pay off my loans or be able to put a down payment on a house.

SANCHEZ: In Marlo's mind, the options were endless, the rewards tantalizing. But by late summer, she realized her parents could not come up with the rest of the money she would need to attend Susquehanna. Devastated, Marlo has been wallowing in disappointment ever since.

Ms. JOHNSON: I don't feel like I'm a fighter anymore. Like, I've been let down so many times, it's not even funny. It's just like, now, after a while, you get tired of being let down.

SANCHEZ: Marlo has been attending Harrisburg Community College, or HACC as she calls it. The $1,750 per semester is affordable, but Marlo feels she's wasting her time there. Her grades haven't been very good, and that's keeping her from getting into the pre-nursing program. At home, Marlo's relationship with her parents has suffered too. With her father in and out of hospitals, her mother burdened with mortgage, and the family in financial distress, Marlo decided to move out.

Ms. JOHNSON: I'm living with my boyfriend. Recently, he dropped out, but he can go back at any time. With HACC, I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to stay because like - I don't know.

SANCHEZ: Marlo rocks back and forth in her chair, wrapped tightly in her boyfriend's oversized jacket. She says she has nothing more to say. I mentioned to her that I'm also checking in with Emmanuel Garcia, her classmate from high school and the other SciTech graduate we've been following since May. Marlo feigns interest. How is he doing, she asks? Well, it turns out the Emmanuel is actually where he wanted to be, Shippensburg University, about an hour's drive from Harrisburg.

Hey, how are you doing?

Mr. EMMANUEL GARCIA (Student, Shippensburg University): Good, good.

SANCHEZ: You look sharp.

Mr. GARCIA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: We meet in the lobby of his dorm in the shadow of a huge water tower on Shippensburg's 137-year-old campus. Emmanuel looks happy - clean-shaven with razor-thin sideburns all the way down to a goatee. He's making lots of friends. Life is good, he says, grinning ear to ear.

Mr. GARCIA: It has been fun, like, more than what I expected. I mean, just from, like, two months, I learned a lot being on my own. I like the experience already.

SANCHEZ: Emmanuel is the first in his family to attend college. His parents are from Mexico. It was a big moment for them when they helped Emmanuel move into his dorm.

Mr. GARCIA: My Dad was like - out of everybody, my Dad was like the most emotional one.

SANCHEZ: Emmanuel says it was the first time he had seen his father cry.

Mr. GARCIA: I think it was, like, just like the fact, like, of letting go. Like, you know, me moving on. He always gets mad when I don't come home for the weekends. But you know, I got papers to do and everything. So, you know, I kind of made him smile and told him, you know, I'm only like an hour away. I'm not that far away.

SANCHEZ: Emmanuel, a business major, has to maintain a B average to keep the scholarship he got from the Pennsylvania Board of Governors. Without it, he wouldn't have been able to cover the $13,000 tuition, room, and board at Shippensburg. Administrators here say they're doing everything they can to keep students like Emmanuel in school. But the lingering uncertainty in the student loan market and the credit crisis have made that task much, much harder. Although there is one student, Shippensburg says, it really wants to help. Someone from the admissions office called Marlo. He offered her a combination of loans and grants and told her to pack her bags. She's enrolling at Shippensburg University in January. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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