Av­o­cado toast aside, mil­len­ni­als are do­ing OK.

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - Michael Tay­lor is a colum­nist for the San An­to­nio Ex­press-News and au­thor of “The Fi­nan­cial Rules For New Col­lege Grad­u­ates.” [email protected]­mart­money .com | twit­ter.com/michael_­tay­lor

You know that widely held be­lief that the mil­len­ni­als are screw­ing ev­ery­thing up?

They’re too in­debted. Twothirds of stu­dents grad­u­ate col­lege with debt, with an av­er­age debt bal­ance ap­proach­ing $40,000 in 2018. A rea­son to worry.

They also post un­fil­tered In­sta­gram shots of their av­o­cado toast lunches so of­ten they’ll never be able to save money to get out of that debt. We old folks in­tuit that each of these ac­tiv­i­ties, in its own way, poses an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Western civ­i­liza­tion.

And then you sit down and talk to a few mil­len­ni­als who are achiev­ing the Amer­i­can dream, cre­atively pay­ing for their col­lege ed­u­ca­tion de­spite long odds, and you think, in­stead: Oh! Ac­tu­ally, the kids are all right.

I had lunch with 21-year-old Ka­rina Pacheco and her col­league re­cently to hear about their fi­nan­cial strug­gles to get a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion de­spite sparse fam­ily sup­port. I’ll re­late her col­league’s story in a later col­umn, but Ka­rina’s is quite in­spir­ing if you’d lost hope in the av­o­cado-toast gen­er­a­tion.

Ka­rina, raised by her sin­gle mom, is the first per­son in her ex­tended fam­ily to at­tend col­lege, in­clud­ing cousins. Her mom de­clared bank­ruptcy a few years back, has al­ways strug­gled fi­nan­cially and earned $13,000 in 2015, the year Ka­rina sub­mit­ted fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion to the Free Ap­pli­ca­tion for Fed­eral Stu­dent Aid, also known as FAFSA. Ka­rina’s fam­ily, in short, pro­vided no vi­able fi­nan­cial path to a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion.

While her mom could not help Ka­rina fi­nan­cially, she did have one very good idea when it came to Ka­rina’s ed­u­ca­tion: She en­rolled Ka­rina in a then-new pro­gram at Travis Early Col­lege High School in the San An­to­nio In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict. The school of­fered an as­so­ciate de­gree — the equiv­a­lent of two years of col­lege — by the end of her four years of high school.

Ka­rina de­scribes Travis as a very “bare bones” high school ex­pe­ri­ence — no sports, no home­com­ings, no pep ral­lies — but aca­dem­i­cally de­mand­ing.

In her first days at Travis, she re­calls, she and other ninth­graders were en­rolled in math classes along­side older com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents on the cam­pus of San An­to­nio Col­lege. She felt thrown into the deep end of the aca­demic pool, forced to swim.

Fi­nan­cially, how­ever, her mom’s plan paid off. Well, at least at first.

Ka­rina ar­rived with two years’ worth of col­lege credit when she showed up as a first-year stu­dent at Texas Tech Univer­sity in Lub­bock. As an in-state stu­dent at a pub­lic univer­sity, Ka­rina faced an­nual costs of a lit­tle over $20,000, seem­ingly af­ford­able com­pared with at least three times that much at a pri­vate univer­sity.

For bet­ter, and worse, ap­ply­ing for and sign­ing for stu­dent loans in that first se­mes­ter of col­lege was not dif­fi­cult, even with­out fam­ily sup­port. She told me she ob­tained an es­ti­mated $8,000 in sub­si­dized loans and $12,000 in un­sub­si­dized loans.

As a fi­nan­cially strapped stu­dent, how­ever, bru­tal re­al­ity hit at the end of her first se­mes­ter at Texas Tech. She learned that un­paid, unan­tic­i­pated fees of nearly $1,000 meant she could not reg­is­ter for her sec­ond se­mes­ter. For the lack of that $1,000, she called home to de­clare her in­ten­tion of quit­ting. Mom re­fused that op­tion, but could not come up with any of the money.

Ka­rina joined a cam­pus group for first-gen­er­a­tion and His­panic stu­dents, which helped in two ways. First, it helped her feel less alone.

“Part of the rea­son I wanted to leave,” Ka­rina told me, “is I just couldn’t re­late to the other stu­dents. I didn’t know any­one who strug­gled as much I did.”

The group also helped her on her new quest: find­ing money. Thus be­gan Ka­rina’s scram­ble for schol­ar­ships, some­thing she had not known to do be­fore en­rolling. She de­scribes schol­ar­ship ap­pli­ca­tions as prac­ti­cally a full-time ac­tiv­ity that be­gan in her sec­ond se­mes­ter — she sub- mit­ted hun­dreds of ap­pli­ca­tions.

The first, big­gest life­saver for Ka­rina was the Ma­rine Corps Schol­ar­ship Foun­da­tion. She was el­i­gi­ble for one of its schol­ar­ships be­cause of her fa­ther’s ser­vice in the Marines. Even­tu­ally this schol­ar­ship paid for a sig­nif­i­cant part of her re­main­ing time at Texas Tech.

Dad had not raised her and ac­quir­ing his “DD 214” proof-of­ser­vice pa­per­work was a bear of a task but ul­ti­mately worth it.

She also qual­i­fied for fed­eral Pell Grants. She won a Wal­mart schol­ar­ship for $500. She re­ceived a schol­ar­ship from the League of United Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens, a His­panic ad­vo­cacy group. She landed part-time work for the Lub­bock In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict to earn ex­tra money. She ap­plied and ap­plied and ap­plied and ended up rais­ing enough schol­ar­ship money to stay at Texas Tech for three full years in­stead of just two. She proudly re­lates that after that first year, she did not have to bor­row any more money for tu­ition, or room and board.

Ka­rina was so suc­cess­ful at the schol­ar­ship and work hus­tle that she had even saved up a few thou­sand dol­lars by this past spring, ap­proach­ing grad­u­a­tion. But then, when her mother faced los­ing her house to fore­clo­sure, Ka­rina’s sav­ings went to bail her out. After grad­u­a­tion, Ka­rina landed a job in San An­to­nio and lives at home now, in part to help her mom.

Any col­lege-bound high school stu­dent from a home be­low the fed­eral poverty level, like Ka­rina, is go­ing to strug­gle in their own unique way. I think a cou­ple of Ka­rina’s strate­gies de­serve an ex­tra shout-out, how­ever, be­cause oth­ers could em­u­late her.

If money is tight, get­ting a four-year bach­e­lor’s de­gree by first com­plet­ing two years for an as­so­ciate de­gree, and then trans­fer­ring to a four-year pub­lic col­lege, seems ab­so­lutely wise. Not ev­ery­one is go­ing to be able to at­tend an “early col­lege” high school, but for the aca­dem­i­cally am­bi­tious kid from a poor back­ground, some com­bi­na­tion of Ad­vanced Place­ment (AP), In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate (IB) or com­mu­nity col­lege cred­its can add up to tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in sav­ings.

Ka­rina found out rel­a­tively late in her col­lege path about schol­ar­ships, but as a strong stu­dent she was able to land enough in time to stay in school and avoid adding to her debt.

Re­pay­ment for her col­lege loans taken in 2015 and now to­tal­ing $20,554 be­gins this week, but she’s gain­fully em­ployed and says she’s up to the chal­lenge.

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