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Balancing the Cost of Higher Education in a Weak Economy

When my youngest son graduated from college, his next step was graduate school as did some of his close college buddies. Their realization even then was that to advance in a global society, college degrees are just the beginning; especially for the fields they were striving for. Despite achieving higher degrees (including law school), the job market has not been all that great in Connecticut.

Add to the mix student loans and suddenly life becomes a game of roulette. One strives to make the grade in high school, get into a good college, identify a “career path,” make it into graduate school and successfully finish. But then you enter the work force to find a narrow field offering fewer options of the kind of employment you were hoping for. Starting salaries don’t always match up with student loans, which feel more like a 30-year mortgage that will take most of your adult life to pay off.

That’s a scenario my husband and I wanted our children (and grandchildren) to avoid. So, we pushed and pushed and then pushed some more. Our mantra, study hard — there’s a scholarship out there with your name on it. More important, study smart. It worked; only one out of five has a large student loan.

Recently, the Hartford Courant interviewed a college graduate about his job prospects:

HARTFORD, Conn. – Since he got his bachelor’s degree last May, Kirk Devezin II has worked a little more than six months. He has freelanced. He has never made more than the $10.36 an hour he earned as a barista at Starbucks while he was a student at Eastern Connecticut State University.

He has interviewed for one job related to his communications major – as a content developer for e-commerce site TicketNetwork – and one career-track job as a manager-in-training at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. [….]

For certain, getting a college degree (and beyond) is the surest way to avoid unemployment, as well as achieve personal satisfaction and self-worth. The problem is that low-wage, hourly jobs have grown 70 percent, which is more than likely why Devezin feels his degree hasn’t paid off, yet.

Connecticut, like the rest of the country, is still in recovery mode from the 2008 recession. Even though Connecticut has gained back 25 percent of the jobs it lost during the 2008 recession, including 5,400 new payroll jobs in January and February 2011, we still have a higher rate of unemployment — 9.0 percent — over the national average of 8.8 percent.

In an effort to find better jobs, my son and a couple of his college buddies have found employment outside of the state that meet their career choices with salaries closer to their goals.

I think schools (working together with parents) can play a better role in helping students become aware of industries that are thriving in their home state. Not everyone can or wants to move out-of-state to set up a sustainable work life that is commensurate with their passion.

Besides, it’s not enough to just find a job. It’s about finding what makes you happy because you are able to create value with what you are doing. The chair I’m sitting in, the laptop I’m typing on, and so on, was somebody’s dream. Somebody’s passion to create allows me to do what I’m doing. We live in a global society but our immediate surroundings will always be relevant.

In Connecticut, the better jobs in demand are in science and technology.

ESPN, the cable television network that focuses on sports … is adding 270 jobs to its Connecticut headquarters. … The … move will increase its Connecticut workforce by 5.1 percent this year to 4,100 employees.

ESPN is in the process of shifting its ESPN The Magazine work to Connecticut and moving 125 jobs to Bristol … from New York City. The company is consolidating its work developing programs for TV, the Internet, phones and electronic tablets. [….]

Fuel cells is a key field in this state. Another area not often talked about is health care, namely nursing and physician office jobs.

I’d like to see an education system that starts in the formative years where teachers actively engage students, successfully drawing out their inner talents. That kind of engaged learning will help students, parents and teachers to identify students’ natural talents and passion. Moreover, engaged learning is key to positive partnerships between parents and teachers.

Right now, we seem to still be promoting an education system that is disengaged, focusing on test scores for the whole and little else for the individual. With budget cuts looming closer to the classroom, class sizes will undoubtedly increase making teachers’ jobs more difficult.

As budgets get “balanced,” I hope we can shift our focus from test scores to engaging our students, and their parents/guardians, to allow them to blossom and enjoy their learning experience. Just as a happy worker is more productive, happy students learn better and test scores will rise naturally.

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