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College goal is out of reach -- for now

Reyes Ventura

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Kai Ryssdal: The pool of federal money that funds student aid programs is about to get $20 billion deeper. Last night, Congress agreed on a deal to cut subsidies to banks that issue those loans and use the money for aid programs directly. Today, The White House said the president will be signing the bill.

We've been talking about education this week. About the accessibility of a college degree for people who might not ordinarily be able to get one. People like Reyes Ventura. From North Carolina Public Radio, Paul Cuadros reports.


Paul Cuadros: Reyes Ventura was once a star defender for his small-town high school soccer team in central North Carolina. The team won a state championship in 2004 -- the first predominantly latino team to do so in that state. Members of that team still come together at a local park in Siler City on weekends to play.

When Reyes graduated a year ago last June, he took a construction job along the coast. He'd drive up on the weekends to see his family and play pick-up soccer before going back to work on Mondays. I drove down to the construction site one day in late summer and caught up with him there.

Ventura: What time did you get into work today?

Ventura: I come here every, like, 6:30, we start working at 7. We get off, 5:30 every day, five days a week.

Reyes moved to the coastal town of Wilmington, two hours away, to take this job because he wasn't making enough money at Mcdonald's. He was making $11 an hour as an electrician's helper, but he hated it and his boss.

Ventura: He was yelling at me, tell me, yelling at me real hard, yell at me all the time, "Go do this, go do that." And the first week, I was, no, going to quit.

He didn't quit, though. He needed the money, and so did his family. He sent money home to them twice a month.

But this wasn't the life Reyes planned on after high school. He applied to two state universities, and was accepted by both.

Ventura: I couldn't go, no. The government asked me for more papers, something that I don't have right now. But I'm working on that right now.

Reyes is a legal resident of the United States. He has all the papers he needs to work, but he doesn't have what he needs to qualify for most financial aid.

Ventura: I don't have the green card. That's what they want, the green card, too, so they can help me have financial aid.

Not only would the green card qualify Reyes for state and federal financial aid, but it would also get him the much lower in-state college tuition rate.

In the fall, about a month before Thanksgiving, Reyes invited me back to see where he was living and how he was doing.

Ventura: Orange juice, lettuce to do my sandwich, eggs . . .

Cuadros: Tortillas.

Ventura: Tortillas, yeah.

Reyes was living alone in a three-bedroom apartment provided by his company. It had five empty beds. The company laid off his roommates, all latino workers.

Ventura: It gets, you know, boring. Don't have nothing to do, just kind of come to your home and just watch TV, maybe cook something and go to sleep and go to work next day.

Cuadros: This must get very, very lonely, though.

Ventura: Yeah, real, real lonely. I don't have nobody to talk to, you know?

The only thing Reyes said he had to look forward to every day was work. He was helping to build a 12-story office building that happened to be right next to Cape Fear Community College. He watched every day from above as the students walked to their classes, brightly-colored backpacks slung over their shoulders.

Reyes: I don't know what was I feeling when I saw the students, you know, passing by with their bookbag, and go learn. I was kind of, you know, sad, I don't know. Like, something inside me, you know, like say, "I can be right there, I could be right there." But I watch where I'm at now, from the big building working, you know, and the students passing by.

Reyes could have been one of those students at Cape Fear. He was slowly giving up hope that he would ever go to school.

Ventura: Sometimes, I just, you know, I say to myself, "Nah, maybe college is not for me. Maybe I'm just going work, and maybe my children they will go have an education, a better life than me."

For a few more weeks after I saw him late that fall, Reyes kept working. Then he took a break to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.

Being home made him realize how depressed and lonely he really was on the coast. It was just too far away. So he quit his job and moved back to take a job at a door-manufacturing plant. He hopes he can save enough money to start taking a few classes at the local community college. His dream is still to go to law school some day.

In Siler City, North Carolina, I'm Paul Cuadros for Marketplace.

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