Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program borrowed $15,000 to earn her bachelors degree. Her colleague Danny Peralta, the community center’s director of arts and education, is $36,000 in hock.
They’ll probably be in their 50s before they manage to pay off their student loans. And they’re likely to pay twice as much in interest as they originally borrowed.
The Point is one of many Hunts Point nonprofits that urge local students to go to college and offer many programs to help them prepare and apply. But debts like those contracted by De La Cruz and Peralta are typical for college graduates these days, and for some they raise the question: Is college worth it?
As the recession has deepened, the number of unemployed college graduates has risen. But the chance of finding a job without a college degree is far worse. About 5 percent of college graduates have been unable to find work, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but unemployment for the workforce as a whole stands at 10 percent, and teenage unemployment is approaching 25 percent.
Money isn’t the only reason to go to college, say workers and students in Hunts Point. . Although De La Cruz emits a Marge Simpson-like groan when asked to talk about her student loans, she insists the value of a college education cannot be calculated solely in financial terms. Once she starts talking about her education at Cooper Union, she has only positive things to say.
Up the street from Cooper Union is New York University, Peralta’s alma mater. Despite getting grants and scholarships and working nearly full-time at a pharmacy, he still had to go into debt.
“College Tuition is crazy expensive, and it’s gotten much more expensive. It makes it harder for people in these communities to take advantage of it,” he says.
One solution is attending a public college. At current rates, tuition for four years at CUNY or SUNY would cost just a little more than half of the debt Peralta racked up. Still, like De La Cruz, a number of current college students and recent graduates from Hunts Point say there are many good reasons to consider more expensive schools.
Many private colleges are looking for talented black and Latino students from communities where poverty is high. Maryann Hedaa, founder and managing director of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, says there are ways to make that choice affordable.
“For the children that we work with in Hunts Point there are a lot of financial opportunities out there,” she says.
However, finding those opportunities requires considerable amounts of time and energy – two things in short supply for many families in Hunts Point, Hedaa continued. Short-term goals, like paying the rent and buying groceries, she says, are such pressing needs that there is often little left with which to plan long-term strategies to pay for college. That’s why HPAC helps students and families prepare for college with programs like Project 2015.
Project 2015 provided nine high school students with $50,000 each to be used toward higher education. Although $50,000 is a substantial sum, it doesn’t go as far as it used to when it comes to college expenses.
Public four-year colleges are charging 24 percent more than they were just five years ago. Private four-year college tuition has increased 17 percent.
Jenny Mena, one of the students who won a Project 2015 grant now attends Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where tuition is nearly $40,000 a year, not counting room and board or the cost of books. Mena is using her $50,000 just to cover the cost of housing over four years.
But for Mena living away from home is an important part of her eduation.
“When you go away, you’re forced to interact with people. There’s no getting around it. You just can’t hide. I just think you’re missing out on a lot by commuting home and going back to your comfort zone.”
With assistance from The Options Program at Goddard Riverside Community Center, and the College Access Center in Longwood, Mena is on track to graduate without any student debt. In addition to the assistance from Project 2015, she is also receiving a full-ride scholarship from Lafayette.
Mena is just one of nearly 14,000 kids between ages 15-19 in Hunts Point and Longwood, however. And Peralta’s situation may be more typical than hers.
NYU, the second most expensive university in the United States, is also one of the nation’s finest. Peralta says studying there was a valuable experience. As a person of color from the South Bronx, he wasn’t expected to go to college, he says, nor was he expected to excel.
But he did. He proved to himself that he’s just as capable as anyone else, including the classmates who came from wealthier homes.
With his success, though, came hardship.
After his graduation in 2000, his monthly loan payments were so high that he had to use credit cards to pay for basic necessities. By 2003, he filed for bankruptcy because his credit card debt had spiraled out of control.
Bankruptcy, however, cannot discharge student loans.
Peralta offers this cautionary advice: “You might go to the best institution, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if your job doesn’t pay you enough to repay your loans.”
Despite his own struggles, he encourages the young people he works with to take out student loans when necessary. Even if they take 30 years to pay it off, it’s worth it, he says. It’s what you have to do to climb the socio-economic ladder, and to invest in your own family and your own kids.