Madison West High guidance counselor Len Mormino (right): "We've got as many students as ever before going after scholarships."
Although high school seniors perennially struggle to make decisions about life after graduation, given the current economic climate, the class of 2010 is evaluating its options more carefully than ever.
"We used to talk very little about what it costs to go to college," says Jena Acker, head guidance counselor at LaFollette High School here in Madison.
Current economic conditions, however, make the cost of college one of the primary considerations of seniors and their parents.
Five years ago, parents emphasized getting their kids into the best four-year college possible, says Acker. She notes that the economic downturn created a shift in conversations with parents and students, from discussions of the top schools to "here are the options and here is what these options cost. Now we need to make good decisions based on that."
In addition to feeling the pressure to make fiscally responsible choices, students must work harder for financial aid and scholarships.
"The financial aid game definitely picks up steam after January, but they really need to be serious about it when they get to school in the fall," says Len Mormino, a guidance counselor at Madison West High School. "I think we've got as many students as ever before going after scholarships."
Doubts surrounding the ability of financial aid packages to fully cover college expenses lead students to consider more prudent post-graduate plans.
Seniors who originally hoped to attend a school outside of Wisconsin before the economic downturn now consider staying in-state as a way to cut back on tuition costs. For those looking for an option a bit further from their hometowns, the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota offer tuition reciprocity, which allows students from both states to pay close to their in-state rate. The Midwest Student Exchange, a multi-state tuition reciprocity program, presents another affordable option, allowing students to save between $500 and $3,000 in annual tuition costs.
"Those kinds of things are more attractive now in tough economic times," says Mormino.
Guidance counselors continue to encounter an increase in the number of students considering two-year programs as well.
"It used to be that almost all parents wanted their kids to go to a four-year school - that was the best path. And now I think that families are reconsidering because of the status of the economy. I think that they're making better decisions based on the fact that money is tight," says Acker.
Acker says the economic climate is forcing many parents to reconsider their old biases against vocational schools like Madison Area Technical College (MATC). She says that MATC recruiting events help parents realize "it's not the technical college that you once knew - this is a brand new opportunity."
"When families start to see [reduced financial aid], they're going to opt for a more affordable [education] like MATC" says Acker.
In the meantime, students appear much more enthusiastic about MATC than their parents, says Acker.
LaFollette senior Jeremiah Lairson agrees. "MATC is a lot better than people think it is," he says.
According to Acker, students view these two-year programs as stepping-stones to employment in a difficult job market. "I think that there is a greater need for a technical school or MATC, and a lot of our kids are taking that option right off the bat," she says.
Acker and Mormino also noticed an increased awareness of two-year transfer programs this year. These types of programs enable students who have completed two-year degrees at a technical or community college to automatically transfer to a four-year college like UW-Madison as long as they maintain adequate GPAs. This option allows students to cut back on the cost of their post-secondary education without sacrificing a four-year degree.
"I think that colleges make known the transfer option more than ever before," says Mormino.
Claire Dawson, a LaFollette senior, has decided on the two-year liberal arts transfer program at MATC because it represents the most financially feasible option for herself and her family.
"Going to MATC in Madison is my main focus because I want to live at home to save money," she says. "I know I'm going to pay for my college no matter what, so I just want to put in as little as possible."
Acker estimates that MATC costs an average of $3,675 per year, compared with UW-Madison's price tag of $8,313 per year for in-state undergraduate tuition.
Both MATC and UW-Madison have noticed a heightened interest in more affordable options. According to Bill Bessette, a MATC spokesman, the school saw a 20-percent increase in enrollment for degree credit courses during the summer of 2009, and a 12-percent increase in enrollment for the fall semester. This increase includes both graduating seniors, as well as workers trying to update their job skills to become more marketable candidates.
"We are kind of bursting at the seams right now," he says.
The number of students qualifying for and receiving Pell Grants (federal, need-based scholarships given to low-income undergraduates) at UW-Madison increased substantially this academic year. Susan Fischer, Director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, revealed that 3,600 undergraduates received Pell Grants during the 2008-2009 academic year. The Office has already awarded 4,000 such grants for 2009-2010.
"We have certainly had an increase in [financial aid] appeals," Fischer says.
Students are even adjusting their career expectations to meet the needs of today's market. Seniors at LaFollette High School says they track job forecasts and can name the jobs that are in high-demand, despite the economy.
"I really like art but, in the long run, I don't think that would be very beneficial, because I think it would be harder to find a job," says LaFollette senior Sarah Beske, who believes that psychology would be a more practical course of study.
Acker concurs. "I think that kids are hesitant to say I want to do this [career] because they may know that that major or that career is not hiring right now."
However, as the economy continues on its unpredictable path and post-graduation plan-making remains as complicated as ever, there seems to be only one approach for seniors across the spectrum.
Lairson sums it up best, "Ultimately, you decide what is best for you, and you decide how to get there."