What the Future Holds

By Beacon Staff

Throughout the last four years at Flathead High School, Natalie Griffin dreamed of attending Wheaton College, an out-of-state private school where she could study to become a doctor. She took honors classes, almost earned a perfect grade-point average and applied for numerous scholarships. After years of hard work, an acceptance letter with financial aid arrived in the mail. Yet Griffin turned it down. Her heart was set on Wheaton, but her mind told her otherwise.

“I realized I’d have to come up with $200,000 to go to college,” Griffin, 17, said a day before graduating last week. “It’s really daunting thinking about getting an education and the fact that we’re inhibited from getting that education because of economic issues. It’s really frustrating.”

Griffin and graduating seniors everywhere have been inundated the last four years with words like “economic recession” and “jobs crisis.” Add to that the dangers of indebtedness. In 2010, two-thirds of college graduates were in debt and owed more than $25,000 on average, the most ever, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Roughly 37 million Americans have outstanding student loans, and among them almost 12 million are still paying off college debt over the age of 40.

But there appears to be a silver lining in this dire climate. Locally, school guidance counselors have seen the leaders of tomorrow increasingly adapt a sense of caution and pragmatism when deciding their future. Instead of accruing higher debt to attend costlier out-of-state colleges, more local high school graduates are choosing cheaper in-state options, especially two-year colleges or vocational schools. There is also an upward trend of graduates deciding to attend college after high school, according to Kalispell Public Schools senior exit surveys at Flathead, Glacier and the two alternative high schools, Bridger Academy and LASER.

“I’ve seen a higher trend (of students staying in-state for college) and last year was pretty noticeable,” said Cindy Allen, a guidance counselor and manager of the Career Center at Flathead. “I think they’re being wiser or taking advice from parents and realizing, ‘Maybe I should stay in town or even in state for the first few years to get the basics out of the way.'”

The total number and percentage of Kalispell public school graduates electing to stay in state for college have increased since 2008, the year the recession hit, according to exit surveys. Four years ago, 222 graduates reported they would remain in Montana for college. In 2009 that number rose to 283 and hit 324 in 2010. According to an unofficial count of this year’s graduates, 360 seniors plan to attend a state school.

The number of this year’s graduates who are choosing not to go to college — 98 — is the lowest total dating back to at least 2003. In 2004, when 99 percent of 543 graduates were surveyed, 169 said they were not attending college after high school. That number has steadily decreased since 2010, when it was 149.

A majority of high school graduates historically remain in state for college. But the upticks in graduates staying closer to home and choosing to take the college route appear to reflect a generation of young adults shaped by the recession and its aftereffects.

The overall cost of attending an out-of-state public university is typically at least twice as expensive as in state, according to CollegeStats, an online database sourced by the U.S. Department of Education. Last year the total estimated cost for full-time residents, including tuition, books and boarding, at the University of Montana was $14,225, according to the school. The cost for nonresidents was over $28,000. Montana State University breaks down similarly.

Griffin had been accepted by both of her top college choices – Wheaton and Seattle Pacific. Both schools offered scholarships. But the financial burden still outweighed the benefits when she looked at it responsibly.
“Money definitely decided where I was going,” she said.

Griffin chose Montana State University where she could still study within her desired field – medicine – but in a different way: nursing.

“It’s a very practical degree. It only takes four years,” she said. “I was going to be a doctor but that’s just outrageously expensive and long and impractical. But with nursing, there’s a very stable market and I know I’ll always have a job as a nurse.”

With less debt, Griffin believes other opportunities will become available, like spending time working as a nurse in a third-world country. Her decision to change both her college and career choice is another example of how young adults are adapting to today’s economic climate.

Griffin remembers the day a teacher pointed out a stark piece of information in class. Today, most people have a harder time paying off debt and remain overwhelmed with loans for their entire lives. College costs continue to increase, financial aid continues to decrease and decent jobs can be harder to find in a struggling economy.

According to a report by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, student loans, which cannot be eliminated with bankrupcty, are forcing more people toward bankruptcy. For millions of Americans, debt is becoming a lifelong burden that stifles any sort of financial freedom.

Experts cited in a recent Los Angeles Times story said the situation not only hampers life’s developments, like buying a house and starting a family, but if it continues to worsen it could lead to a crisis similar to the recent mortgage meltdown.

“Take it from those of us on the frontline of economic distress in America,” said William E. Brewer Jr., president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, in an LA Times story. “This could very well be the next debt bomb for the U.S. economy.”

Jerad Avery, a senior guidance counselor at Glacier High School, has advised high schoolers in Kalispell for the last nine years. He tries to instill a sense of responsibility and perspective so graduates are prepared for the demands of adulthood. As freshmen, students at Flathead and Glacier take a class that introduces them to a variety of careers, hopefully planting a seed of interest in a field of study or line of work. As sophomores, they take an “Essentials” class that explores career options and college requirements. Student surveys also help whittle down possible occupational or college choices.

The hope is that by senior year young adults are better suited to excel in “the real world.” And a big part of that is understanding financial realities.

“I try to tell kids, ‘Save up your money early on because maybe you’re going to get a master’s degree,'” Avery said. “High school is meant to be a launching pad for their life. There are bigger mountains to climb. But you don’t want to get racked up by debt right away.”

Avery’s words of wisdom sunk in for Brianna Larson. Larson has had a 4.0 GPA dating back to sixth grade and is one of 12 Glacier seniors who graduated with straight A’s. Both of her dream schools – the University of Idaho and University of Washington – accepted her. She settled on Idaho where she could study criminology and theater. She was excited to venture away from home and live in a new place. But then she did the math. All the scholarships could still not cover the sizable amount of debt she would have to incur.

In the end, Larson opted to stay home. Next fall she will attend Flathead Valley Community College. Even though her heart told her otherwise, Larson, like many others, chose the practical route.

“At first I was really disappointed,” she said. “But now that I’ve had a while to think about the decision, I’m really happy about it.”

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