Recession Offers Hard Lessons In Paying For College Last year, Marlo Johnson and Emmanuel Garcia graduated from high school with big dreams and no money. Emmanuel scraped together enough funds to pay for college. Marlo wasn't so lucky, but a year of earning minimum wage has reinforced why that college degree is so important.
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Recession Offers Hard Lessons In Paying For College

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Recession Offers Hard Lessons In Paying For College

Recession Offers Hard Lessons In Paying For College

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A year ago, Marlo Johnson(ph) and Emmanuel Garcia(ph) had big plans for college. Marlo and Emmanuel are teenagers from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We've been following them as they tried to get into college and find the money to pay for it.

The financial crisis meant that paying for college got a whole lot harder in the past year. Marlo shelved her dreams and attended community college part time. At the last minute, Emmanuel got the money he needed for college but nearly dropped out.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez met up with both of them to hear how the year has gone.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Emmanuel Garcia is home for the summer, and not a day goes by that he doesn't pinch himself. He made it. He's in college, and money is not the insurmountable problem it was just 10 months ago.

Mr. EMMANUEL GARCIA: It seemed impossible. My parents said, you know, oh, we're here for you, but like, I really knew, like, how much they're in debt. So, it hit me hard, like, knowing everything's on you. Luckily, I was able to go through it.

SANCHEZ: Go through it he did. It's hard to believe Emmanuel just completed his freshman year at Shippensburg University. I wanted to know all about it, so we meet where we first met, SciTech High School in downtown Harrisburg.

So, do you know what your grades were?

Mr. GARCIA: Overall, it was a high B.

(Soundbite of laughter)

My second semester, I didn't do that good in the beginning, but I…

SANCHEZ: With a B average, Emmanuel can keep the scholarship that covers most of his tuition and fees, so he's happy. He's also grown a moustache and lost lots of weight, which is the first thing Marlo Johnson notices as she walks to join us.

Mr. GARCIA: What's up, Marlo?

Ms. MARLO JOHNSON: Oh, my, gosh, you lost so much weight. I feel old seeing you again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: A year ago, the first time I sat down with Marlo and Emmanuel, they were anxious, about to graduate and waiting to hear about the financial aid applications. Back then, Marlo was sitting on a $16,000 scholarship from a private college, but she needed another $17,000 to cover tuition, room and board. Marlo didn't qualify for grants, and her parents couldn't borrow the money. So, after graduating from SciTech, ranked third in her class, Marlo left home, enrolled in community college, and ended up flipping burgers full time until a few weeks ago.

Ms. JOHNSON: I walked out of McDonald's. I got really sick of that job, coming home greasy every single night, maybe even later after 1 o'clock in the morning.

SANCHEZ: So, you walked out, and then what happened?

Ms. JOHNSON: Two days later, I got another job.

SANCHEZ: Marlo now works at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the state's biggest provider and guarantor of student loans. She spends most of the day on the phone, fielding questions from anxious students.

Ms. JOHNSON: And their main question is: why am I delinquent? How am I delinquent? I'm still enrolled full time in school. Well, private loans, they have these things called intern options…

SANCHEZ: Who better than Marlo, now an expert on student loans, to counsel stressed out students? She's been there. These days, though, she sounds like the confident, tenacious young woman I met a year ago, intent on pursuing her dream of becoming a registered nurse no matter what. She's dumped a couple of boyfriends, moved back in with her parents, and is headed to Shippensburg University in the fall.

Ms. JOHNSON: I don't think I've ever said that to myself, like ever, that I wouldn't want to go to college. That's something that's, like, a must. I mean, I see my dad struggling, and he never finished college.

SANCHEZ: It's time to dream again, says Marlo. As for Emmanuel, he says he's trying to stay focused, but family problems have become a big distraction.

Mr. GARCIA: The big one was recently, like, with my dad, like, you know, going to jail. He went to jail, like, the Friday after Christmas, and you know, it was just sad to see, like, everybody crying in my family. At that point, I actually thought about, like, leaving college.

SANCHEZ: When Emmanuel's dad went to jail, the family's finances hit rock bottom. He's out of jail now, but Emmanuel worries about how all this has affected his family.

Mr. GARCIA: I don't see my family the same as before. I don't know, my dad, he's just acting like a little shady lately because he also hasn't, like, told nobody like really what happened. I don't even know.

SANCHEZ: But how could he not know? I ask Emmanuel if I can talk to his father, but it's clear that he doesn't want me to. The whole thing bothers him.

Mr. GARCIA: It bothers me to the point where I just don't care about it anymore. I have my life right now.

SANCHEZ: Emmanuel loves his dad, but he says he can't let anything get in the way of his education.

Mr. GARCIA: How are you doing, Mr. Reed?

Mr. MIKE REED (Principal, SciTech High School): You look great, man.

SANCHEZ: At SciTech High, the principal, Mike Reed, is thrilled to see Emmanuel and Marlo again. He marvels at their resilience. After all, Reed says, they've not only overcome the turmoil in their personal lives, they survived the worst student loan crisis to date.

Mr. REED: After last year, towards the end of the year, when the banks were pulling out from lending, and a lot of our students were left with a lot of questions that could not be answered, our guidance counselor and administration developed a plan of how we could better educate our students and our parents on how to confront the realities of - that lending was going to be more difficult.

SANCHEZ: This year, Reed introduced a course for ninth graders called financial planning for college. And even though money for college is not nearly the problem it was a year ago, students this year are still hurting, says Reed, and he points to Alizah Thornton(ph), this year's valedictorian.

Ms. ALIZAH THORNTON: I worked hard throughout my high school career. I got -took three AP classes this year. I took three classes at community college and ended up with As in two of them, and it doesn't seem like I'm getting anything to show for it.

SANCHEZ: She's still short thousands of dollars for college. So, Alizah is exactly in the same situation Marlo and Emmanuel were a year ago. She's worked hard and done really well academically, but it's not enough.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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