For the high school members of the class of 2013, the 12 years of school they’ve completed might have been the easy part. The choice they have to make about where they’ll be come fall is, for some, proving tougher than the SATs, thanks to a weak job market and escalating college costs.
“The recent recession reignited the debate about the value of a college education in today’s fragile economy,’’ said Paul Krzywicki, Misericordia University spokesman. “While an advanced degree is not for everyone, the overall importance of a college degree cannot be understated when it comes to future earning potential.”
According to the data provided by area schools, and observations by some school officials, the high unemployment rate might be driving some to college who might have been on the fence a year or two ago.
The overall unemployment rate remains above 7 percent for the nation and 9.4 percent locally. For those under age 25, the national unemployment rate is above 16 percent. For those with just a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 30 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that rate was as low as 17.5 percent in the pre-recession year of 2007.
While those numbers are daunting, the tuition rates at many colleges are so high that students worry not only about affording college, but also about paying off the tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for years after they earn their degree.
According to the Economic Policy Institute’s recently released report: “Young graduates still face dim job prospects.” For the 2012–13 school year, the total cost of attendance for an on-campus student — including in-state tuition, books, room and board and transportation expenses — at a four-year in-state public school averaged $22,261. For a four-year private school, it was $43,289. With some parents either unemployed or earning less than they used to because they lost a job and re-entered the workforce at a lower salary, these rates are sometimes too much to take on, even with student loans.
Melanie Wade, director of enrollment at Wilkes University, said she has seen a record number of requests for financial aid this year “and a lot more discussions about affordability.”
And salaries for college graduates, though still much higher than those who have only high-school diplomas, also have dipped. The Economic Policy Institute analysis found that young high school graduates were making an average of $9.48 an hour in 2012, yielding an annual income of roughly $19,700 for a full-time, full-year worker. Young college grads were earning an average of $16.60 an hour, which translates into an annual income of roughly $34,500 for a full-time, full-year worker.
“In recent years, studies have shown that college graduates, on average, earn more than $1 million more over their lifetime than their peers who do not hold an advanced degree,” Krzywicki said.
While some might take college costs into account more during a recession when considering the value of a college degree, Wade said, one thing remains certain: “Everybody’s struggling in the job market right now, but you struggle a little less with a college degree.”
Jeffrey Shaffer, principal at Dallas High School, said while the trend at some area school districts might be fewer graduates going right into college, the numbers at Dallas have been a steady 88 percent of graduates moving on to higher education. He credited district parents with that consistency.
“There’s a large push from our families in this district that college is the way to go,” Shaffer said. But just what type of college is a question that’s been a hot topic.
Shaffer said more students are looking at two-year trade schools or a community college at first with the aim of transferring to a four-year school as a way to still get a degree but keep costs down.
Cindy Homnick, a Northwest Area High School guidance secretary, also has seen that trend.
“Most of the students who attend a two-year school go on to finish their education at a four-year school. One trend I do see is that because of rising prices, a few more students are attending (Luzerne County Community College). Also, more and more students are choosing to attend state schools instead of private schools,” Homnick said.
All area high schools were asked to provide a breakdown of this year’s graduating class, showing which route students were taking: four-year college, two-year college/trade school, military or entering the workforce. Only nine responded by this story’s deadline.
According to data provided by Northwest Area, of the 91 students in this year’s graduating class, 35 percent enrolled in a two-year or trade school. At 36 percent, only Hanover Area has a higher percentage of its graduating students doing the same.
Luzerne County Community College is the beneficiary of this trend of starting off at a two-year college.
Jim Domzalski, director of enrollment management at LCCC, said, “One of the main factors that contribute to our increase in applications is the increase in articulation agreements that LCCC has with other higher education institutions that ensures the transferability of credits to other colleges and universities.”
So far this year, the Nanticoke-based college has seen a record number of enrollment applications, and there are still months to go before the fall semester begins.
Shaffer said more students also are looking at five- or six-year degree programs. Those programs will keep them in college longer, but they’ll graduate with an advanced degree that could have more earning power.
“You have to find what’s for you,” Shaffer said.
As part of that philosophy, Shaffer said, the school is implementing a new course this fall for all freshmen who will explore career and consumer services.
The half-year mandatory course will enable students to explore different career paths and hear from professionals in the field about their jobs and will include the taking of the Holland Aptitude Test so students will have a better understanding of the types of careers that might best suit them.
“It will start the thought process,” Shaffer said.
For some, the two-year college is the right path, but others will enter the workforce immediately.
Speaking before he graduated from the Wilkes-Barre Career and Technical Institute recently, Dakota Hamilton said he’s debating between the Marines or masonry work.
“I would do the Marines because the benefits they offer are phenomenal. I might do masonry because I spent three years doing it, and I don’t want to waste that experience. I feel I can find work doing it,” said Hamilton, of Hanover Township.
Classmate Todd Thorn of Pittston is heading right into the job market, though he said one trend he’s noticed is more graduates considering the military “because of all the grants they can get.”