Now Middle-Class Parents, Not Just Their Kids, Can Get a Degree

The Aguilar Family in San Antonio TX. (© Alexander Aleman and National Journal 2013 )

SAN ANTONIO — Since Kimberley Aguilar married Sergio Garcia on April 6, they've planned a honeymoon on the beach in Mexico and moved into a three-bedroom house, complete with a yard for the groom's two daughters and miniature Doberman, Gigi, to play in. "I think our generation is very lucky," Sergio says. Not only have he and his peers achieved more financial security than their parents did, they also have time and resources to invest in their own education. Being middle class in America used to mean sending your kids to college. Now it means being able to send yourself to college, too.

Neither Kim nor Sergio has a college diploma, but both are thinking about returning to school part time, an option their parents never had. The newlyweds are second-generation Americans, the grandchildren of Mexican nationals, and both grew up on the city's heavily Hispanic south side. Kim, who's 32, and Sergio, 31, went to the same middle school and high school in San Antonio but didn't meet until they were in their 20s. Together, they earn $80,000 to $90,000 a year.

Life has had its "struggles," Sergio says, but not on the scale their parents faced. Kim's father, a plumber, was in and out of work, and her mother's secretarial income often kept the family going. Sergio's dad worked construction, and he, too, struggled to make ends meet. Sergio and Kim both remember times when there was nothing to eat at home but rice and beans.

Kim points out that her parents got married in their teens, while she and Sergio, as thirtysomethings, will be raising a family at a financially more stable time in their lives. Kim bought the house last September, near their families on the south side, and hopes to sell it someday and move to a better neighborhood.

They may be living the American Dream, but both of them understand that a college diploma has become all but essential for advancing in today's economy. Sergio dropped out of high school. Kim enrolled in community college while working part time as a teller at a credit union. She meant to finish her degree but found that her job took up more and more of her time. "Eventually, I was just taking a couple of night classes," Kim recalls. And then, her schooling stopped.

Instead, she moved up the ladder at work, becoming the manager of a branch near the San Antonio airport on the north side of town. "Right now, with the economy the way it is, I don't think a degree guarantees you a job," she says. "But with experience, to work my way up, it definitely helps." Kim plans to return to school in pursuit of a business degree, and she's pressing Sergio to go to college, too.

As a supervisor at a factory that makes dispensers for frozen beverages, Sergio handles logistics and shipping. At his company, he sees opportunities to advance that require a higher degree, and he regrets his decision to quit high school. He wants to earn his general equivalency diploma but doesn't plan to enroll in college until he's surer of his focus.

"I like what I'm doing," Sergio says, "but at my age, I need to make sure that what I want to pursue is where I want to stay."

He definitely wants his daughters to go to college. He hasn't begun saving for their higher education — one daughter is in seventh grade, the other is ready for kindergarten — but he hopes they'll win scholarships if they study hard enough.

Kim's parents always encouraged her to get ahead, and they worked weekends to pay for speed-reading as well as dance lessons, cheerleading, and other extracurricular activities. Sometimes, her father drove the kids through a nice neighborhood, telling them that if they worked hard enough in school, one day they could live there.