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In the coming weeks, many students and their parents will be cosigning big loans in order to start college this fall. Here at MORNING EDITION we've been paying close attention to how families are pulling together to finance their lives in this tough economy. It's a series we call Family Matters. And today, in our latest installment, NPR's Tasnim Shamma has the story of one family that has made big changes to achieve their dreams of a college education.
TASNIM SHAMMA, BYLINE: Maureen O'Brien told her daughter Emily, dream big. Pick any school and they would figure out a way to pay for it. Emily chose the University of Vermont. Price tag for out-of-state residents, over $49,000 a year. Emily took out a loan to pay for about half of it. Her mom, who's single, borrowed the remainder through a federal loan program for parents. Together, Maureen and Emily co-signed more than $54,000 in loans for just the first two years of college.
MAUREEN O'BRIEN: That was one of the compelling reasons why I asked her to consider coming to a state school here in Arizona, now that we're residents, because I just couldn't keep doing that. And then with, you know, my son going to college too - I can't do that for two kids.
SHAMMA: This fall, Emily will be a transfer student at Northern Arizona University. It's about a third of the cost of the University of Vermont. Her younger brother, Casey, will soon enroll as a freshman at another state school. They're expecting to borrow an additional $70,000 to pay for college. Emily says leaving the East Coast and having to transfer is tough.
EMILY O'BRIEN: I loved it and it is a shame that I can't go back again in the fall.
SHAMMA: She tried to offset college expenses by working part time. And this summer, she's working as a cashier at a frozen yogurt shop. She says she's determined to finish her degree in environmental studies.
O'BRIEN: I can't afford to go to college, but I'm taking out loans, I'm putting my foot forward and making sure I get an education so that I can get a really good job in the long run.
SHAMMA: Emily's mom isn't just helping finance her daughter's education. Maureen O'Brien is also juggling $60,000 of her own student loan debt. That's from when she went back to school to become a physician's assistant. She'd been laid off from her job in 2004.
But even after she graduated her salary in upstate New York wasn't enough for her to make the monthly loan payments. Her home was facing foreclosure, so she sold it and moved out to Kingman, Arizona with her son.
O'BRIEN: So he and I packed up a truck and the dog, and spent four days driving out here.
SHAMMA: She has a good salary now - about $93,000 a year. Still, more than a third of her take-home pay goes toward paying off student loans for her and for Emily.
O'BRIEN: There's a feeling of satisfaction that you get when you go home at night that you didn't get working at a help desk or working in a cubicle. But, at the same time, I think I've maybe mortgaged my future in ways that I couldn't have imagined when I went back to school.
SHAMMA: O'Brien laughs nervously when she talks about the future.
O'BRIEN: I don't know what I'm going to do.
SHAMMA: She has no savings, no money put away for retirement, and she even has a little bit to pay off from her first degree in 1996. She says it all feels heavy.
O'BRIEN: People really need to look at the fact that this is a burden to all young people and how it's eventually going to end up being a really drain on the economy, because people can't buy houses and they can't buy things. They can't put the money back in.
SHAMMA: Despite her family's growing debt, O'Brien still believes in the value of a college education. She says her first undergraduate degree - in French and international studies - taught her how to think critically. And she wants the same for her kids.
For NPR News, I'm Tasnim Shamma.