It’s a springtime ritual, one eagerly anticipated by young adults throughout the Flathead Valley. Over the past two weeks, seniors at area high schools donned their caps and gowns, smiled for proud parents snapping cameras and cleaned out their lockers one last time.
But this year, amid the recession, many students are injecting a sobering dose of reality into the pomp and circumstance.
Unemployment in Flathead County has been in double digits for months now, limiting options for those hoping to work straight out of high school. Colleges have seen their endowments and scholarship funds shrink with the stock market’s decline, leaving them with less money to offer students for financial aid. In many cases, students’ parents have lost jobs, taken salary cuts or seen their investment savings shrink.
Still, high school graduates here are cautiously optimistic. And with their myriad accomplishments, from athletics to academics, the class of 2009 has a right to be.
Venturing into a tough market demands ingenuity, and school counselors think that’s a good thing. Rather than become single-minded too quickly, students are forced to face uncertainty, and do more exploring.
“I think this whole thing has made high school seniors a little more serious about investing in their future,” George Shryock, a Flathead Valley Community College admissions counselor, said. “I’m seeing them come with some more definitive plans than they have in past.”
Additionally, students who had planned to immediately join the workforce – pursuing once-plentiful careers here like logging, manufacturing or construction – are reconsidering.
Chris Golinsky took a student building class at FVCC and briefly considered construction work, but with that market bust he considers himself lucky to already have another job. A certified diver for three years, the Glacier High senior has been working at Kalispell’s Salty Dog Dive Shop for about a year.
Now, he’s opted to spend a few more years in the valley, gather his thoughts and save up money for an underwater welding program in Seattle.
The military, school counselors say, has also seemingly grown in popularity with more students being drawn to the promises of a steady income and funding for future education.
For many students, however, the scarcity of jobs has made spending a few more years in a classroom seem more attractive. Counselors say that could be beneficial in the long run: the forced opportunity of additional years of education will likely result in higher earnings levels.
“That’s our message to students: Go to school so that as we recover over the next couple of years you’re in a position to get a good job,” Deann Thomas, who runs the Career Center at Glacier and Flathead high schools, said.
And in that search for schools, affordability has become key.
Lingering stigmas faded this year, students say. Two-year schools like FVCC are recognized as viable options – not a second-tier education.
For Glacier senior Leslie Strodtbeck, the local community college proved a competitive – and less expensive – jumping off point before eventually pursuing a degree in dental hygiene from Sheridan College in Wyoming.
“(FVCC) is a good school; I’ve heard so many good things about it from friends, and I’ll need to be prepared because Sheridan’s program is really competitive,” she said. “And it makes sense financially.”
Strodtbeck plans to complete her general education classes in two years here while continuing her part-time job at Trinity Childcare, before transferring. She’ll save about $1,000 a semester in tuition costs – plus the reduced cost of living with her parents.
Nationally, the percentage of students who attended their first-choice colleges in 2008 declined to a 34-year-low of 60.7 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. In addition, the percentage of students who were accepted by their first-choice colleges, but decided to attend a lower-tier choice, rose to 17.1 percent in 2008, compared with 16.5 percent in 2007.
With job and financial markets having worsened significantly since then, experts say they expect those numbers to climb even more this year. Local counselors say seniors are taking a more conservative approach toward financing their education.
“There are definitely students who I think thought they’d attend a small, private school in the Western United States, but when it came time to decide it didn’t seem like a wise idea to go into that much debt,” Thomas said.
Tuition rates were frozen for the next academic year at FVCC, so with a small increase in fees, students will pay about $1,860 per semester. Last month, the Board of Regents voted to continue a tuition freeze at its smaller campuses, but raised tuition at the state’s two flagship campuses in Missoula and Bozeman by 3 percent.
Still, both universities are cost-effective options, considering students can expect to spend around $80,000 for an out-of-state college degree. For elite or private schools, the cost is much higher.
Last year, Thomas’s office sent final transcripts to FVCC for about 117 of the approximately 550 Flathead High School graduates – or more than one-fifth of the class. While numbers aren’t finalized this year, she expects them to climb significantly.
Shryrock agrees. After seeing a nearly 20 percent enrollment increase this academic year, fueled largely by laid-off workers seeking retraining, he said the community college is preparing for a similar increase in August.
“We’re anticipating another large jump with more people retraining and more seniors staying closer to home,” he said.
After watching her older sister graduate this year from a private university in Oregon and struggle with college loans, Flathead senior Daniell Schutt decided a four-year college plan wasn’t for her.
“I’m afraid of debt for sure, so I’m going to pay for art classes as I can afford them,” Schutt said.
The 18-year-old hopes to grow her jewelry-making business and continue work at Wood’’s Country Store to earn money for art classes at FVCC. After a few years, she plans to save enough to move to the Portland-area, where she can live with her sister and continue more classes.
Despite all the changes, Flathead Valley seniors remain unshakable. After all, the recession is beyond their control and they have to – actually, in most cases, are ecstatic to – move on.
“How could you not be excited?” Shutt said. “No matter what, I think most of us are still ready to go.”
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