Levittown at School: Life and Debt in a Gloomy Economy

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America’s student debt has reached $1tn, and interest on college loan repayments is scheduled to double on 1 July unless Congress acts. In the latest of our series on Levittown, Pennsylvania, we look at how today’s students are facing challenges older generations never did.

When Eileen Hoffman was eight years old, she was Levittown’s future.

Brought to live in the sparkling new town by her parents, the young girl marvelled at the sight of grass, at the open spaces, at the fresh air.

Eileen was an ambitious girl with ambitious parents. They saw Levittown, founded in 1952 just months before their daughter was born, as a path out of hard-scrabble Philadelphia.

One of her earliest memories was the spine-tingling day when then-Senator John F Kennedy put Levittown on the map in 1960 with a presidential campaign stop in the town shopping centre.

"The idea was that you could do anything you wanted to do," she recalls today. "Your children could do anything they wanted. They could surpass their wildest dreams."

And Eileen did just that. From little Levittown, Pennsylvania, she took her inquiring mind to a succession of ever-grander seats of learning: Long Island University, NYU, the University of Madrid.

Yet she never forgot Levittown, and when she finished her studies she returned home, she became Eileen Shine.

She returned to her true alma mater, her high school, dedicating her career to improving the chances of those who came after her.

Today – among other responsibilities – Mrs Shine manages Harry S Truman High School’s roster of elite examination candidates.

These able students are capable of tackling four-year courses at universities that charge as much as $50,000 (£30,820) per year.

Brandishing the list, she points to the names marked in red. Every one – about half the list – qualifies for free school meals. In US education, that is shorthand for poor.

It is one of the starkest differences with the Levittown of years gone by, says Palmer Toto, the school’s head of guidance.

Where families once worked to save for a college fund, today they work to pay the mortgage. There is little or nothing left over.

‘Disintegrating families’

The locker-lined halls of Truman High are as much of a throwback to the era of the American Dream as is the name of the school.

There is a football stadium, a baseball diamond and an 800-seat theatre. The senior prom is coming up this month.

There are also plenty of students who seem infused with the same ambition that drove a young Eileen Hoffman.

While Eileen could be certain that her parents’ endeavour would set her up to achieve her goals, there is less certainty for today’s graduating class.

"I’m going to be the first in my family to go to college," says Megan Cannon, 17, who has secured financial assistance to study at Pennsylvania’s Lockhaven University.

Nevertheless, Megan works two jobs as well as studying for her high school diploma. Her mother, who runs her home alone, also has two jobs – as a bartender and as a bus driver.

"I’ve seen how my mom has lived and I want to have as much as I can," Megan says. "I want to make my mother proud."

Mr Toto, a former English teacher who returned to Levittown’s only high school after 21 years in private business, says Megan’s situation is very typical of Levittown in 2012.

"The family unit is disintegrating," he says. "And there is no money. Our youngsters are having to choose community college whereas before they chose a four-year degree."

The average yearly tuition cost in 2009-10 reached $12,804 at publicly funded colleges and $32,184 at private institutions, according to the US Department of Education.

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