A family record is bested

Posted: June 25, 2014

I AM WATCHING my nephew graduate from high school and he's on his way to besting one of my proudest family records. I couldn't be happier.

I am the first and only one in my immediate family to graduate from college. But now, this goofy kid-turned-confident young man follows his sister - who just finished her freshman year at Sacred Heart University - down the same road I took years ago. He'll be at the University of New Haven, about 20 miles away from his sister, majoring in business and playing Division II soccer.

There's a lot of talk these days about the cost of college and whether it's worth it. News outlets run devastating pieces about college students crushed under mounting debt and unmet aspirations. Just this weekend, the New York TimesMagazine had a piece about the "Boomerang Generation," people in their 20s and early 30s moving back home mostly because of student debt. According to the article, nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds have average debt above $20,000 and more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don't require a college degree.

That's insane.

College should be cheaper. College debt is a crime. And that pricey piece of paper should lead to a lot more paper in the bank, says this journalism major. As President Obama said in April during remarks about raising the minimum wage, "Opportunity . . . means making college more affordable."

Yes, it does.

And yet, for my family, and so many others, there is never a question of college being worth it. There are multiple solutions to fixing poverty, but for my family and others, education is the best way to break the cycle. I know where I'd be if I didn't stumble my way through college.

So does Larbriah Morgan, a young Temple student I wrote about, who struggles to stay in college after aging out of the child-welfare system. "I want something different, something more," she told me.

Even with the recession and the disgustingly high college price tags, things are still comparatively better for college graduates than their peers without a degree. College graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full time earn about $17,500 more annually than their peers who have only a high school diploma, according to the Pew Research Center. (Although many studies have also shown that not all degrees are equal.)

In my family, the answer about going to college was always simple - maybe oversimplified. It was the road there that proved otherwise. It was an opportunity my parents didn't have. It was an opportunity my sisters and I didn't necessarily know what to do with.

You can hammer into a kid that education is key. You can even hand kids a full ride, but sometimes that's not enough, especially when those kids are the first to go down that road. Twenty years ago I did a story on a group of about 70 Hartford, Conn., students who in sixth grade were promised free college educations if they finished high school.

Many of the "Dreamers," as they were called, went to college. Only a handful finished.

My father didn't go to college but it was he and my mother who stressed "education, education, education." Even when I had no clue how I was going to get to college or how I was going to stay, that soundtrack played in my head and brought me back every time I stumbled.

I stumbled a lot. A short stint at the University of Connecticut, until I flunked out. A couple of years at Northern Essex Community College, in Haverhill, Mass. And then Boston University, where I vividly remember standing in my dorm room feeling like an outsider, wondering what the hell I was doing there. And then looking at my tuition bill and wondering how the hell I was going to stay. (Short answer: Loans, loans and more loans.)

I saw some familiar stresses of college in my niece during her first year at Sacred Heart. But I didn't see that doubt. She may have been overwhelmed with a heavy course load. But not once did I see or hear in her a feeling of not belonging.

My niece still has at least three more years before graduating from an intense physical-therapy program, knock on wood. (No, seriously, knock on wood . . . she'll be straddled with some hefty loans, too.) My nephew is just beginning. But right behind them are two more nieces, including one who will be checking out colleges as a high school junior next year.

Sometimes, when I'm being sentimental and silly, I think it would be kind of cool if one of them chose my (eventual) alma mater, Boston University. But really, it doesn't matter where they go or what they choose to study.

What matters is that the soundtrack my father first started playing for his three daughters plays on.

"One more," my father said as he and I watched my nephew walking toward us in his cap and gown.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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