Graduation Week 2012: Good times now, uncertain ones ahead

This week, almost 3,000 Harford County high school seniors are walking across stages to receive their diplomas.

They may be feeling exuberant as they throw their caps into the air and head off to post-graduation parties, but it won't be long before their euphoria evaporates. Then, the Class of 2012 will have to get back to the business of trying to stake out a sustainable future in a country with a slow economy and shrinking job market.

Long gone are the halcyon days when a high school diploma was enough to get a job that pays a living wage, but gone too are the days when a college education cost less than $10,000 a year. The average college tuition for public institutions has risen 37 percent in the past decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 25 percent for private institutions. Meanwhile, the median Maryland family income dropped from $82,879 a year in 2001 to $68,854 in 2010.

To make matters worse, a sluggish economy means greater competition for scholarships, as well as fewer funds. This year was the second consecutive year that the Senatorial Scholarship, which awards funds to select Maryland residents enrolled in a two- or four-year degree program, was in jeopardy. The scholarship was put on hold for the 2012-13 school year until two weeks ago, when the General Assembly reinstated the funds during its special legislative session.

Joseph Ingrao, a member of the C. Milton Wright Class of 2012, is among the Harford County students matriculating in the fall to a four-year, out-of-state college, where he will be studying engineering and is considering a second major in Asian studies.

Joseph acknowledges that he was considering focusing his studies on history or philosophy but, as he is "equally interested in the hard sciences and humanities," he ultimately decided on engineering because of the better job prospects.

As the U.S. economy slows, the number of students in the state seeking higher education outside of Maryland has decreased. Conversely, the number of students enrolled at Harford Community College has increased. In 2011, according to the college, 7,447 students were seeking associate's degrees at the school, 39 percent more than 5,336 enrolled in associate's programs in 2004.

Nancy Dysard, the director for marketing and public relations at HCC, acknowledges that greater pressure on high school graduates to save money accounts in part for the increase in enrollment. She also credits the college's marketing campaign, "Consider Harford First," which has worked for the past seven years to educate Harford high school students on the advantages of attending a community college.

Jackie Lanza, a rising sophomore at HCC, agrees with Dysard.

After graduating high school, Lanza said, "I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do with my future. And, I didn't want to go somewhere and take classes and then decide I wanted to take different classes and essentially waste my parents' money."

At HCC, Lanza was able to try several different types of classes at a relatively low cost per credit, and eventually settled on studying early childhood education.

Lanza's decision to attend HCC was also influenced by her desire to stay in her hometown of Bel Air. Lanza isn't upset that she might be missing out on what popular media portrays as the "classic college experience."

She says she is happy living with her parents in a house far more comfortable and less expensive than a studio apartment or college dormitory, and "is definitely not interested in frat parties."

Media portrayals of student life at colleges have often focused on the shenanigans of students living away from home for the first time, but if current trends continue, the concept of the classic college experience will have to change.

No doubt alcohol, sexual experimentation and zany hi jinks will remain a part of the "college experience," but today's students are keenly aware that future success depends on dedication to academic studies and frugal lifestyles.

As Joseph Ingrao says, as a rising college freshman, it's "impossible to achieve anything by worrying" about job prospects and life after college, but at the same time, today's students "have to be prepared" for the world that awaits them when they complete their educations.

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