Laura Ofobike: Young, ambitious — and on hold

January 11, 2011

A young lady left me a message saying she needed some help. Any ideas, advice, whatever I could offer would be appreciated. She had tried every avenue she knew to get what she needed. She had hit a brick wall at every turn.

Her story isn‚??t the type that makes the eyes well up or ends up on the front pages of newspapers. In fact, you might walk down any street and run into someone with a variation on story.

She is a student, she said. She has just completed the first semester of her freshman year at a local university. She has worked since she was about 16 years old, dropped out of high school, but then got her GED and qualified for college admission.

‚??I‚??ve worked hard and done what I am supposed to do, but I can‚??t get financial help of any kind to continue in school,‚?Ě she said. ‚??I owe the university from last semester, about $1,000, and they won‚??t let me register for classes until I have paid.‚?Ě She didn‚??t know how she was going to come up with the money to stay in school.

I asked her all the standard questions, of course: Have you talked to the financial aid office in your school about student loans and grants? Have you checked work-study opportunities? Corporations, organizations and foundations offer all kinds of small scholarships, you know. Have you explored what scholarships you may qualify for. Can your parents help you through the first year, at least?

‚??I‚??ve talked to financial aid several times, but I didn‚??t get anything,‚?Ě she said. She hasn‚??t been able to line up any scholarships, either. Loans, apparently, are out of the question, too, because her credit is shot for a long time. A family member stole her identity and racked up thousands of dollars in credit-card debt, she confided.

It‚??s a tight spot for any young person to be in, if everything she said is true. Short of a grant from some benefactor, she could work on clearing up her credit history and her name, which would make it that much easier to qualify for student loans.

Or she could suspend her education and work full time until she saved enough to cover tuition ‚?? maybe, for another year of college, if not the whole stretch. Of course, in a still-shaky economy, it is a tall order to land a job (or jobs) that will pay a high-school graduate a survival wage, with something left over for a college fund. Unless something changed rather quickly, we both agreed, the young lady‚??s prospects of completing college didn‚??t look too good. Then she stumped me: ‚??Why is it that here in America, someone like me who is an American and has worked hard to get to college can‚??t get the help they need?‚?Ě she asked.

She had expected, I imagine, that the effort she was putting in to improve herself would yield its own reward in the form of timely support. Isn‚??t America supposed to take care of its own, its young and ambitious ‚?? like her?

It is hard to hold an obvious exaggeration against a disillusioned young woman, especially one boxed in, as it seems, by a cruel turn. Of course, students can and do get financial help. There is an elaborate structure of scholarships, government and private grants and loan programs for students and some for parents.

As I said, there is little if anything in this young woman‚??s lament that won‚??t find echoes in numerous others. But the larger point that gives pause is this: It breeds great disillusion if we, as states or a nation, keep preaching higher education (and that‚??s not necessarily in a university) and superior training if support remains out of reach for an increasing number of students on the financial margins.

Indeed, many universities now measure their college-completion rates on a six-year span, rather than the traditional four years, not only because a growing percentage of students are workers first and students next, taking longer to graduate, but also because some students are compelled to take time off, a semester here and there, to build up reserves to get back to school. Some never make it back.

This past Congress was exasperating, to say the least, for the posturing and frequent stalemates, but it managed to revamp the student aid system. The new law put the federal government in direct control of student loans, diverting billions of dollars that had subsidized loan programs at private banks to increase funding for different types of federal grants.

But it is a new era in Congress now. Any reforms President Barack Obama touched are tagged as toxic to jobs, items to be picked off one by one or starved of implementation funds. Let‚??s hope the improvements in student aid stay safe from the reversal zeal.

Laura Ofobike is chief editorial writer for The Akron Beacon Journal. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by e-mail at