For College-Bound Students, Is There an Upside to the (Economic) Downturn?

If the news media didn’t do an adequate job of reminding us that the economic outlook seems like nothing but doom and gloom, mud-slinging presidential campaign ads certainly do. For anyone about to graduate from college and enter the job market, it’s daunting. Those about to pay for college are no less fearful of their future, but in watching student’s behavior over the last few years, I believe there may be some positive behavioral changes attributable to the faltering economy.

When times were good (monetarily), fewer students thought about the economic ramifications of the decisions they made regarding college selection and the accompanying price tag, but also the decisions that followed that affected employability and lifestyle. Talking to students about accumulating significant debt was previously like talking about monopoly money. Very few teens seemed to really wrap their minds around the impact that significant debt (credit card, educational, etc) would have on their lives. Often these students just wanted to pursue the degree from their institution of choice with little thought about price or the amount of debt it would take to fund this education.

Attitudes seem to be changing, however. Not only do news outlets uniformly deliver the same dismal economic message, but for many, the message is driven home in a much more personal way. When your friends and family who recently graduated from college cannot find adequate employment after months of trying, or your parents have faced layoffs or cuts in overtime hours, it brings the big economic picture into our homes in a way that shapes some difficult conversations.

I see, for example, students who are incredibly serious about going to medical school. Many of them, aware of the potential debt burden of 4 years of private undergraduate education and 4 years of medical school, talk much more significantly about foregoing the first four years at some prestigious, private institution for four years at an in-state public university because of the potential long-term impact on student debt load. (I am making the assumption that financial aid would not make public, in-state and private colleges the same price.)

Other students recognize that because of circumstances beyond their parents’ control, paying for a high priced school may no longer be an option. For students who may qualify for financial aid, they often understand what it means to spread their risks. Reach schools and safety schools also have an economic meaning… ones you know you will be able to afford and ones that you hope you can afford but may or may not be able to. I work with a large population of upper middle class students. These families are largely college educated and make enough money so that they won’t qualify for much financial aid, but they are by no means independently wealthy and the thought of writing a check for $50,000/year for a private college ranges from daunting to impossible, particularly when there are multiple college-bound kids in the same household.

I am also hopeful that the daily bombardment of dim economic news has made students make career choices more deliberately. Students who want to pursue a career in teaching, for example, often realize that, given the budget cuts implemented in their own school districts, jobs are not as plentiful as they once were, and given the number of teachers who have been laid off, the number of applicants for any given job is staggering, often numbering into the hundreds. Should that dissuade a student from pursuing a career about which they are passionate? Absolutely not! Instead, I encourage students pursuing a career in a crowded field like education or law to think about how they might make themselves stand out in the job market. What skills or specializations are more in demand that might allow them to tailor their skill-set to better fit demand? In the legal field, for example, students with a science background who can pursue a career in patent or green/environmental law may find themselves better positioned in a crowded market than someone without those specific skills. Teachers in certain fields, like special education, math and science, or teachers of English language learners are likely to have an easier time finding jobs than some of their counterparts. Students may not know exactly what training or specialization makes them more appealing in the job market, but when they hear that a job posting in their district is getting three-hundred applicants or more, it occurs to many of them that they need to do something in order to stand out.

I do a silent cheer when a student tells me that they’re choice of college majors is shaped, at least in some small part, by future job trends and demands. We (as a society) often ask teens and young adults, “What do you want to major in?” or “what kind of career do you want to pursue?” I only hope we guide them toward the information about trends and demands so they can optimize their chances of securing gainful employment. For my part, I will share one of my go-to sources for this kind of information. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook (available at ) provides great information on job trends, pay, educational requirements and much, much more.

The downturn has, hopefully, served as a teachable moment for the younger generation. Rainy days do happen. Belt tightening and difficult choices are inevitable for many of us, but, most importantly, there are always multiple pathways to success. Success may not mean attending the most selective college with the most name recognition. It may simply mean graduating… however that needs to happen.

(NOTE: You will not know if or how much financial aid funding you will receive until you have applied for and received financial aid packages from all of the colleges to which you have applied; however, you can get a good idea of what you can expect your family contribution to be by using an Expected Family Contribution calculator like the one at