ADDISON COUNTY — As students at the region’s four high schools this weekend take their diplomas in hand, the question on many minds will likely be, “What next?”
Although the recession and the high-price of post-secondary education is weighing heavily on the minds — and wallets — of many of these graduates, for a majority of local students the next step will be enrollment in a four- or two-year college. Though statistics aren’t yet available from every high school, and such numbers rely on students’ voluntary reporting of post-graduation plans, most local students in the class of 2010 will continue their studies after graduation.
“For a while I thought about taking a year off and traveling,” said Jennifer Gibson, who will graduate from Mount Abraham Union High School on Saturday. But since Gibson is considering going to medical school, she decided to jump straight into what could amount to many more years of schooling.
Like many of her peers, Gibson will head to college in the fall; for her it will be Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Mount Abe counselor Deb VanSchaack said around 55 percent of the Bristol school’s graduating class this year is heading on to college.
At Middlebury Union High School, roughly 78 percent of members of the class plan to attend post-secondary school. Another 11 percent of this year’s graduates say they expect to enter the workforce full-time.
At Vergennes Union High School, early numbers show that 39 percent of students will head to four-year colleges, and another 10 percent to two-year, one-year or technical schools. Guidance counselors at the school warned that the numbers paint an incomplete picture of post-graduation plans because many students haven’t yet responded to a school survey. (Last year, 42 percent went on to four-year schools, and 25 percent attended one- or two-year schools.)
About 45 percent of students at Otter Valley Union High School will head on to four-year schools, with another 20 percent attending technical or community college.
ECONOMY HITS HOME
Guidance counselors and principals at local high schools said that many students’ post-graduation plans boiled down to economics.
For Sophie Owen-Jankowski, who will graduate from Mount Abe, economics worked in her favor. She was offered a scholarship to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., her first choice. That financial aid will make attending the school cheaper than attending the University of Vermont.
But some students heading off to college are finding themselves making tough financial choices due to the economy. MUHS Principal Bill Lawson said that financial aid seemed to play a big role this year in students’ choices between various institutions, and anecdotally he’s heard from students who are choosing to go into the military because of opportunities for free education down the road.
“I think more and more we’re seeing the issue of finance play a role in college choice,” Lawson said. “I know some kids who got into their first choice college, but because the financial package wasn’t as great they’ve chosen to go someplace where they could get a better financial package.”
Meanwhile, more students across the country are pursuing coursework at community colleges, where the cost of tuition is typically 20 percent what it would be at four-year state institutions, according to Rick Dalton, the president and founder of Cornwall-based nonprofit College for Every Student.
Locally, Otter Valley director of guidance Lori Robear has also noticed this trend, and said she’s seeing more students than usual head to the Community College of Vermont (CCV).
She thinks the “Introduction to College Studies” course that the CCV makes available to high school students has been a bridge for some to ongoing studies.
The economy has played out in other ways for high school seniors, Robear went on. She thinks that students who are interested in apprenticeship programs with local tradesmen are having a harder time than usual finding work.
“Contractors and electricians are having a hard time with the economy themselves,” Robear said.
And in some cases, according to VanSchaack, students who would prefer to work after graduating from high school are discovering they simply can’t find work.
Across the board, schools in Addison County and Brandon are sending more students on to college than the national average, according to Dalton. Nationally, he said, about 38 percent of graduating high school students go on to four-year colleges.
Dalton’s of a mind that the national number should be higher — much higher. His organization works nationally with under-privileged students to help high schoolers make the leap to college, and succeed once they get there. That latter goal is important because only 50 percent of students who start college graduate within six years.
Currently, 95 percent of the students Dalton’s group works with goes on to college. He bristles at the view expressed by some pundits that, in light of low graduation rates and crippling economic debt, too many students are attending college in the United States.
“Right now, as a country, and this is way beyond Middlebury, we are facing the prospect of becoming a Third World nation because of decreasing numbers of kids going to and completing college,” Dalton said.
Twenty-five years ago the United States ranked number one in the world in the proportion of its citizens that hold college degrees. Today, it ranks 10th.
“If we don’t figure out how to get more kids to college and through college, we will all pay the price,” Dalton said.
STRIVING FOR MORE CHOICES
Though the number of students in the area heading on to college outstrips the national average, some local residents aren’t content to rest on their laurels.
Weybridge resident and Weybridge Elementary School board member Michele Hernandez, a college admissions consultant and longtime educator and author, is in that camp.
She, along with other parents and community members, is petitioning for curricular overhauls at MUHS that she thinks could make students more competitive in the college admissions process. She wants to see students taking more Advanced Placement classes, and wishes the school would reconsider its current “block scheduling” calendar that she thinks makes it hard for students to digest and retain knowledge.
She’d also like to see guidance counselors urging students to look beyond some of the local choices for colleges. While private and elite colleges often have a high sticker price, she said there is scholarship money available to low-income and rural students at schools with larger endowments.
She said it was disappointing that only eight MUHS seniors this year are heading on to schools that the high school terms “highly selective,” meaning schools that count 75 percent or more of their accepted students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.
“These kids are bright. They should have more options,” Hernandez said. “They could be going to better schools, and getting more funding, if (the school changed its strategy).”
But Lawson said he thinks MUHS seniors are well prepared for the college admissions game, which has become increasingly competitive, particularly at some upper-tier New England schools. He also recommended students focus on some off-the-beaten path schools that can offer strong educations at lower prices, including schools outside of New England.
While he said the school can always do more to help students compete for spots at the nation’s top colleges, he expressed confidence in the class of 2010’s choices.
“I think they’re going off to a lot of great schools,” Lawson said. “I’m confident that our kids are getting into their top choices and making decisions based on the realities of the times at that point.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.
Friday, June 11, 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 12, 10 a.m.
Under the tent outside the school
Saturday, June 12, 10 a.m.
Memorial Sports Center
Saturday, June 12, 11 a.m.