Parents pushing practicality in college choices

Chicago TribuneAugust 11, 2012 

— At 24, Ally Lincoln is a rarity in her circle of friends. She has a college diploma along with a robust paycheck, benefits and a well-marked path for career advancement.

“I wouldn’t have any of this if my mom hadn’t made me go into nursing,” said Lincoln, replacing an empty IV bag at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “It was one of the smartest things I ever did.”

During the last five years, the hiring outlook has curdled for all Americans – including those with four-year college degrees, the demographic most likely to land a good job. With tuition costs skyrocketing, the weak employment growth weighs heavily on cash-strapped families.

And while the frenzied scramble to get into an elite school still dominates senior year for many strivers, those footing the bill are taking an increasingly hard-nosed, consumer-oriented approach to their child’s higher education, education experts said.

Parents are pushing their student into certain majors, vetoing others and advocating for in-state schools over more expensive status brands. They’re grilling administrators on job-placement rates and alumni networks. In short, they are demanding a better return on their hefty investment than ever before, and administrators say they are getting the message.

“As the price of college goes up, parents are more concerned with results, so they’re asking tough questions,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., “and good for them.”

A college degree is no longer a guaranteed cushion from financial hardship. Only 56 percent of the class of 2010 had a job – any job – one year after graduation, compared with 90 percent in 2007, according to the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. As for law school, only about 65 percent of those in the class of 2011 are in jobs that require them to be members of the bar.

And yet, since the 1980s, tuition has skyrocketed. The tab at private liberal-arts institutions can easily top $50,000 annually, while some in-state schools, such as the University of Illinois, have hit the $30,000 mark. One in 10 Americans is paying off student loans.

When it comes to post-college employment potential, majors matter. Of the top 10 occupations for hiring, half are engineering-related, according to the U.S. Labor Department. For every art history, psychology and sociology major tending bar or painting houses, there’s another in astrophysics, pharmacology and actuarial science being hotly recruited.

Institutions are responding to the market by tweaking admissions materials, emphasizing not just new dorms and football Saturdays, but their internships, graduate-school partnerships, well-connected alumni and newly expanded curricula with an eye to the real world.

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