Students From Tough Backgrounds Want College Degrees, But Costs Are Crippling

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Photo: Reshae Gary Tutoring at The Crossing
Colorado Mesa University student Reshae Gary, 21, tutors kids at The Crossing in Denver. She'll graduate with about $60,000 of debt.

Some students are struggling more than ever to graduate from college. Crippling student debt continues to rise with new figures showing debt load for a college graduate in Colorado at about $25,000. At the same time, a ProPublica report shows tuition in Colorado rose 116 percent since 2000.

Reshae Gary, 21, is determined not to let those numbers daunt her. There are a host of studies that show that someone like her -- female, low-income, African-American student with a declared music major that doesn’t lead to high earnings -- represents the demographic that will have one of the greatest challenges paying back student loans.

But Gary is a fighter, full of optimism. She had to overcome a lot just to get to college.

She was the youngest in a big extended family and loved to sing. But while she was in high school, life at home became awkward and tense. Her dad disappeared for days at a time. Finally her mom told her her dad was addicted to cocaine.

Fast Downward Spiral

Her parents divorced, and "things just hit the fan real quick,” she says.

Gary had been a typical teenager as a junior at Overland High School in Cherry Creek.

“I was kind of like the band geek who was in the anime club, who was in the art club and the guitar club, and marching band, just ‘cause I could,” she laughs.

But Gary and her mom left, with nowhere to go. After a month in a motel. her mom heard about The Crossing, part of the Denver Rescue Mission charity for the homeless. It was a two-year transitional program. There Gary found a quiet place to do her homework, and there were adults ready to help.

An intern was one of the only people Gary would let into her world.

“She understands my anger, she understands my sadness and she wanted to genuinely help,” Gary said.

That intern and another mentor helped her get through high school and fill out college applications. One of them gave her a laptop to do school work.

Originally Gary had thought of universities like the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But at about $40,000 a year for tuition alone, it wasn’t going to happen. Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction had good programs in science and vocal music – two of her passions.

“Singing has always given me joy, like whenever I sing I feel my happiest,” she said.

Big Adjustments

At first, college in Grand Junction for this Denver girl was like another planet. No busy bodies. No sirens.

Photo: Reshae Gary Gets A Hug At The Crossing
Reshae Gary gets a hug from one of the kids she tutors at The Crossing in Denver.

“It was quiet, but it was a nice quiet. It was a very peaceful quiet. Like, you think of college and you think of action, not crickets” she said, remembering how she could hear the insects from inside her freshman dorm. “I can step back, smell the roses, and stick my head in a book.”

She’s grown to love the landscape -- the mesas, the Book Cliffs, the monuments.

The transition to academic hasn’t been easy. Gary’s high school grades didn’t qualify her for some scholarships. Nor could she apply for a host of scholarships targeting students who are the first in their families to go to college. Her mom went to college. She wasn’t aware that she likely could have qualified for scholarships for homeless students. So Gary has a federal Pell grant, along with two student loans.

Now starting her junior year, she hopes to graduate in three years with a degree in vocal performance, and about $60,000 of debt. She sighs just thinking about every time she has to fill out the 10-page application for federal student aid.

Gary works about 15 hours a week in a fast food restaurant to afford books. She’s said she’s “kind of terrified” about the loans she’ll need to repay. She tries to budget, and puts aside a little bit of savings every month. Life is “chaotic,” she said.

At Colorado Mesa, 70 percent of students are able to pay back at least some of their loans within three years of graduating, according to the most recent federal data compiled in an analysis by a national non-profit Third Way.

However, graduation rates aren’t as positive. Mesa reports a 37 percent graduation rate, for the 2009 cohort of students. That’s up from 29 percent for the students who started in 2006. The Third Way report shows that nationwide, only 48 percent of full-time college students graduate within six years.

Daunting Demographics

There are also a host of recent studies showing that for Gary’s demographic, a low-income African-American woman who has chosen a liberal arts degree, it’s a monumental struggle to get a degree and pay back student loans.

Gary says those numbers won’t keep her from her goal of achieving a college degree in five years.

She understands the financial and demographic challenges she faces and that her major might not be the best way into the job market. She wants to back up her vocal degree with business courses and hopes after college, she can find an entry-level job.

“I know there will be some rough times but with my background I believe that I know how to handle budgeting and saving money,” she said. “I know that as an African-American female, jobs will be hard [to secure]. But I have multiple skills and great references. Anyone who meets me can see my passion and work ethic. I am set up to get a door open after that it is on me to get the job.”

Gary’s also intent on giving back. So, this summer Gary came back to Denver, to The Crossing as an intern.

On one of her last days before she heads back to college, Gary, with long skinny braids and a James Brown t-shirt, plays “brain games” with the kids. She has an easy way with them and they adore her.

“She’s helpful and kind and respectful,” said a young boy. Gary has helped him a lot with math, he said.

“She’s nice and fun and I am really, really going to miss her,” added one of the girls there.

Gary tells the kids she used to live here. They listen with rapt attention. She takes them to a bulletin board that has a picture of her when she lived here. They can’t believe it.

“She’s one of the people that work here, you don’t really expect people to work here to actually stay here before,” said a girl with copper-colored hair.

Gary wants to be the person to listen to them, to nudge them forward – just like an intern did for her once. These kids can do anything, she said.

“We have scientists in the midst, we have writers, we have authors and gymnasts – all of these kids are so creative and just smart, I wouldn’t want them to not see their full potential,” she said.

Her experience this summer has given her a lot of insight into how hard her mother worked when they lived here “to keep me safe, to keep her safe, to keep moving forward when it seems like there isn’t a lot of hope.” And that’s inspired her to move forward.

Gary wants to pursue a career in music, singing and songwriting. Her student loans prompt her to work harder.

“I make sure that I know when my due dates are. And I try to definitely work twice as hard for school,” he said.

This summer Gary lived with her father. She says he's been clean for three years and she's glad to have the Dad she remembers back in her life. This week, Gary is back in class -- back to her studies and her music, and back to going to sleep to the sound of crickets.