Preparing for the cost of college in today's economy can leave high school students feeling as if they're taking the biggest gamble of their lives. With an economic climate showing few signs of rebound, seniors at Madison LaFollette High School are struggling over how to best use their limited savings.
For many seniors, the prevailing attitude that college offers the best path after graduation has been transformed by the realities of today's economic climate. Now more seniors see college as the best path only if they can manage the risk of debt.
Claire Dawson has decided to deal with increased financial burdens by focusing on the most economically practical path for herself and her family - the two-year liberal arts transfer program at Madison Area Technical College (MATC).
"I hear a lot of things about MATC like, oh, they'll accept anyone," Dawson says. "My GPA is pretty high, and I have a high class rank, so that's why people say that I could do better than MATC, but I don't look at it that way."
Dawson explains that choosing the two-year transfer program at MATC over the full four-year college experience is something that she wants to do to help out her family financially. "If it's cheaper and a comparable experience, why not go to MATC?"
Dawson says the college's transfer program makes sense for her, because it will prepare her for a career in nursing. "The reason I want to go into nursing is because there's a big demand for it," she says.
She knows her decision to save money by living at home and attending MATC means some serious trade-offs. Dawson realizes she will miss out on the typical college dorm life, fraternity parties, and the initial experience of newfound independence.
However, she seems comfortable with her decision. "Right now, I don't feel like I'll regret it," Dawson says. She explains that, no matter what she or anyone else thinks of MATC, once enrolled she will take comfort in the knowledge that she is saving money. "That takes some of the tension off," she says.
While her peers scramble to finish their personal statements for college applications, Dawson can sit back and relax, knowing that she's already set on a path. If anything, watching her friends stress over admissions makes her nervous. "I feel like I'm missing something," she explains.
Hailey Alfred, another senior at LaFollette, recently discovered that her military mom could transfer GI Bill benefits to her. Before the discovery, Alfred considered taking a year off between high school and college to work and save money.
"I was thinking. . . is going to college for four years and racking up all of this debt really going to be worth it, or should I just continue working?" she explains.
But, with the GI bill benefits - $30,000 per year plus a monthly stipend - Alfred could expand her options. She says her mother, a master sergeant in the National Guard currently deployed in Iraq, became aware of the G.I. Bill's untapped potential after doing some research and talking to colleagues this past fall.
"That opened doors to anywhere I wanted to go," says Alfred, "It was a huge relief. . . I had no idea how we were going to pay for [college]."
Like Dawson, Alfred weighed the bleak job market when deciding on her top school choices. She explains, "I love to write and that was my original career path - I wanted to be a journalist - but now everything is shifting over to online, and print journalism is kind of dying out, so I had to explore something else that I would still enjoy."
She is now focused on political science as a potential major, and is especially interested in the pre-law program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Invoking an old cliché, she remarks, "The three things that you're always going to need are a doctor, a lawyer, and a mortician."
Not all students are so lucky. David Santos, whose family emigrated from Mexico City eight years ago, could be the first in his family to go to college. But he currently gets little support from home.
"My mom doesn't really push for [college]," he explains. "She should be more involved. . . My dad is in Mexico right now so he doesn't really count as an option [to help me with my decision]."
One of Santos' older brothers is urging him to go straight to college after graduation. Although Santos' top choice for next fall is MATC, he questions his ability to afford it. "I'm absolutely looking at scholarships," he says. If scholarship money is insufficient, he will get a job after graduation to save money for college, or he might try attending college part-time while working part-time.
Ironically, the weak economy makes it easier for senior Jeremiah Lairson to afford college. Both of his parents recently went back to school to gain a competitive advantage in today's difficult job market. "[My dad] couldn't find jobs because he basically got beat out by people who had less experience but had bachelor's degrees. . . So that's what made him go back to school," he explains.
Because everyone in his family currently attends school, Lairson received a hefty financial aid package. Viterbo University in La Crosse also offered Lairson a scholarship based on his high ACT score.
Lairson, who is passionate about musical theatre, says the economic climate has made him reconsider following his dreams. Recently, he started to explore music education, because he believes teaching offers greater job security than the performing arts. "There's a high need for teachers in low income areas," he explains.
As these LaFollette seniors explore their options in today's economic climate, one question will continue to weigh on their minds: Have they chosen the right path? Dawson, Alfred, Santos, and Lairson hope their strategies will balance the risk of debt with the reward of a college education.