Avocado toast aside, millennials are doing OK.
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.