The 3,000 seniors in the Frederick County Class of 2012, who are getting ready to graduate by the end of next week, know all about the recession.
They entered high school in fall 2008, just as financial and housing markets were crashing and the country went into an economic slump. They were old enough to worry as their parents lost jobs, agonized about plummeting home values, and were forced to scale back family budgets. It might have been the toughest lesson they learned during high school, but it seems to have helped this year's graduates prepare for future challenges.
“I absolutely think it has affected us,” said Shabnum “Sukhi” Gulati, a Gov. Thomas Johnson High School senior. “As soon as we started thinking about college, we were thinking about the financial obligations that come with it.”
Many see two-year colleges as a smart financial choice, and are more willing to take alternative avenues to pursue their college dreams. Instead of going to their first-choice colleges, some of Gulati's friends are heading to their second or third choice because they are offering them a better financial package. Others are deferring their admission in four-year colleges to spend a year at Frederick Community College as a way to save.
“They are still very excited about college,” Gulati said. “But if they are taking out loans, they are also thinking how to pay them back.”
Gulati is moving on to her first choice — Stanford University — where she wants to study international relations and economics. She already has a financial plan, and this summer will be working at a restaurant and two debate camps to pay for college. When she starts school, she also plans to get a job.
“I was fortunate because a lot of my tuition will be covered by grants,” she said. “But I worked hard for this all through high school.”
According to some Frederick County school officials, Gulati is not an exception among graduating seniors. Members of the so-called “class of the Great Recession” seem to be coming out of high school with a much more specific plan for what they want to study and where they will find jobs.
Compared to previous classes of seniors, the 2012 graduates also are more concerned about financing their college education, said John Walton, a guidance department chair at Urbana High School.
“This used to be less explicit. It was more a conversation that I would have with parents,” he said.
And this year's graduates are much less likely to despair if they have to drop their top-choice college for a school that has a better financial offer.
“It usually starts with the parent,” he said. “But more kids are aware of why this decision is being made.”
At Urbana High this year, there have been about a 5 percent increase among students using FCC as a stepping stone to a four-year college, Walton said. “It is made up by kids who have a four-year college profile.”
Kay Wilson, a guidance counselor at Tuscarora High School, has noticed similar trends among her seniors. One big change this year, was a visible increase in attendance at seminars that educate families about financing a college education, she said. “It's probably doubled.”
Another change this year is that more students at Tuscarora High School seem to be considering joining the military as a way to fund college, Wilson said, although specific statistics are not yet available for the current year.
According to data from the Maryland Department of Education, 93 Frederick County students were planning to join the military after high school in 2011. In 2010, that number was 127 students.
“They are looking at that as an avenue for a college education,” Wilson said.
Regardless of their college decisions however, graduates this year still are excited about leaving high school and entering the real world.
“There will always be jobs, it's just that the competition for them will be tougher,” Gulati said. “But I am optimistic.”