Financial bind puts college goal on hold

Clark Atlanta University is a marathon's run from Shaneka Williams' home in Lithonia. It might as well be a million miles away.

It doesn't matter that the 18-year-old was promised at the age of 4 a nearly full ride at the college if she finished high school. Williams kept her end of the deal. She has the Lithonia High School class of 2008 tassel to prove it. But harsh economic reality always trumps a promise.

Clark Atlanta is on hold — for now. A dream deferred by a few thousand dollars for books and fees and gas money and car insurance — incidentals not covered by a commitment offered by Clark Atlanta University in the mid-1990s to preschoolers in Head Start, a program for children from low-income families. At the time the "Touch the Future" Head Start endowment, a tuition waiver that covers 80 percent of the school's cost, was the only one of its kind in the country.

And it was full of possibilities.

That was before this recession broadsided the U.S. economy and derailed Shaneka's dream. As much as they'd like to, her parents are already saddled with the day-to-day expenses of raising three children, which kept them from really being able to put away college money. Her mother's attempt to start a business recently failed. Her father's job future is uncertain.

"I was kind of upset because I had always wanted to go there since ninth grade," said Williams, a soft-spoken teenager who loves hanging out with friends and watching scary movies, and who hopes to be a pediatrician one day.

The reality that Clark Atlanta would have to be put on the backburner came late last summer after she and her parents did the math and came up short. The Clark Atlanta-Head Start certificate offered a level of insurance the Williamses couldn't buy.

"We were excited," the teenager's mother, Brenda Williams, recalled. "That was one piece of paperwork I kept up with all these years."

The family applied for financial aid last year, but even after financial aid kicked in "we realized there were other fees we'd have to come up with out of pocket. It was quite a bit more than what we had figured," Brenda Williams said, sighing. "We discussed the situation at the time. We just could not come up with the fees that she needed."

Now, instead of walking across campus with friends, Williams is holed up in her bedroom most mornings on her laptop.

She's preparing PowerPoints, learning about poetic styles and themes, how strokes affect the brain or the harsh working conditions of women and children in early American history.

She's taking the English, psychology and history classes online through Georgia Perimeter College, her Plan B.

"I didn't want to wait to start school, so I just went ahead and signed up for Georgia Perimeter," she said.

Unable to buy class books, Williams scours the Internet for information that fits her class work. She also is working at a day care center to bring in extra money to pay the slew of college fees, including one for not living on campus, which runs in the hundreds of dollars.

That resilience is something Williams' mom has come to rely on.

"She likes to have fun. But she can manage when she needs to, which is a good thing," Brenda Williams said of her oldest child. "She's very reliable. Very dependable."

If that means picking up her kid brother, 9-year-old Doug Jr., from school on the spur of the moment, Shaneka is there. Or like the time recently when she accompanied her dad, brother and sister to a relative's funeral in Florida. She took along her blue and black laptop so she could squeeze in some class work.

"It's little things like that," said Brenda Williams who tried to launch a cleaning business earlier this year. The recession, again, stood in the way. She's looking for

a job but relies on child support from Shaneka's father to help pay bills.

Shaneka's dad, Douglas Sr., who also lives in Lithonia, is an engineer, a good job when times are good. But not so ironclad when you're dealing with a 16-month-old recession that's killed millions of jobs.

"There's been some cutbacks," Williams said of the company where he works but no layoffs so far.

"But I'm not sure what will happen," he said.

His daughter's challenges remind him of his college days in the early 1990s when there was a recession, too.

He nearly dropped out of school because of a personal matter, but his family persuaded him to tough it out.

He and Shaneka's mom met in college and didn't have much money after they graduated, got married and Shaneka was born. So the Head Start program was welcomed by the young parents.

"It's really great for my daughter," Douglas Williams said. He's particularly heartened by his daughter's determination.

"I'm like any proud parent," he said.

While she has her family's encouragement, Williams is pretty much on her own when it comes to getting to Clark. It's sort of her Life Lesson 101.

The recession's reality check has pushed her to seek other sources of help. She found a program called Young People Matter. It started in December 2007 to help teenagers. But the program's direction took an urgent turn as the recession deepened.

"We had a lot of kids who would come and we'd hear them saying, 'Oh, our parents don't have money to pay for prom photos or senior class dues,' " said executive director Simone Joye, who launched the jobs portion of the program in February. "The light bulb really went off for us when one girl said she couldn't go to college because her mother had lost her job. So we said, 'Wait a minute, teens are a viable demographic.' "

It has proven to be Herculean work.

While U.S. unemployment overall is 8.5 percent, it's nearly triple for teenagers and even worse for black teenagers. Nearly four in 10 black teenagers are unemployed.

Shaneka Williams is one of the lucky ones. She recently landed a $7-an-hour job at a day care center through Young People Matter. The hours vary — some weeks she works, some weeks she doesn't — but every little bit helps.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Each succeeding generation was supposed to do better than its parents. At least that's the way it's been since the end of World War II.

But this generation of would-be college students and school-age kids — those born between 1980 and 2002 and known as the millennials — may have more in common with those who endured the Great Depression.

"There's a big reality check. Not only of what can happen in this country, but what's happened financially to them and their families when things go awry like they're doing right now,' said Lisa Orrell, a San Jose, Calif., consultant who works with companies to bridge intergenerational gaps at work.

If any generation can weather this economic tsunami, Orrell said, it's the millennials.

"They tend to be a very optimistic generation," she said. "They're a very go-getter generation. A lot of people think there's a lot of hand-holding and caretaking [of this group]. That's true. But they also understand they need to work hard."

And make sacrifices.

Many kids are finding schools closer to home and going to a junior college for their freshman and sophomore years. Others are delaying school or going to less prestigious ones. Some, such as Shaneka, are working to earn money for college and finding affordable alternatives to stay on track.

"I don't think the American dream's derailed. I don't think they think they're looking at it like it's all gone," Orrell said.

Last week the college stakes got higher in Georgia. The state Board of Regents voted to drop a 2006 policy that guaranteed freshmen would pay the same tuition for four years. Future freshmen will see tuition costs rise 25 percent at schools such as the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Come fall, Shaneka Williams pictures herself rushing across campus at Clark Atlanta headed to class.

She may arrive on campus a little later than she had planned, but she is determined to get there.

"I always knew I'd go to college."