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 surging, 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 inWashington, 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 pass the bar exam.
And yet, since the 1980s, tuition has skyrocketed. The percentage of families who ruled out certain colleges from their list of choices due to cost rose to 69 percent, the highest level in five years, according to Sallie Mae.
The tab at more than 100 private liberal arts institutions has topped $50,000 annually, while in-state schools -- like the University of Illinois -- have hit the $30,000 mark. One in 10 Americans are paying off student loans.
Even the most affluent parents are zeroing in on results more than ever when considering colleges for their children, said Marybeth Kravets, a longtime counselor who retired from Deerfield High School in 2010.
"I've seen the shift ... it just kind of hits you in the face," said Kravets, now a private college consultant on the North Shore. "On campus visits, parents are going to the career center. ... That never happened before."
Patrick Tassoni, college coordinator at Northside College Prep in Chicago, said, "The ethos of the consumer is changing, due to economics."
"Before, parents were more focused on quality of life. Now, they've definitely become more career-minded," Tassoni said.
Earnings potential certainly played a major role in Ally Lincoln's decision back when she was a senior at Prospect High School and wanted to pursue equestrian therapy -- reflecting her passion for horses.
"My mother told me not to confuse a hobby with an occupation," she said. "I was upset."
During a college trip to Bradley University in Peoria, her mom "made" her look at the nursing school, where a tour guide rattled off a barrage of statistics, including that the median salary for a nurse is $60,000 and unemployment rate is 2 percent.
Lincoln remembers begrudgingly thinking to herself: "Maybe my mother is right."
Now, the 24-year-old is hitting her stride -- along with certain traditional markers of adulthood that have eluded many of her peers: She's engaged, has a 401(k) and health insurance. This summer, she's been busy house-hunting, a task made easier with her four-day weekends. (She works three 12-hour days a week.)
"My friends are so jealous," she said.
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.
Augustana College in Rock Island, for example, has recently added international business, graphic design and pre-engineering. Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, has beefed up its nursing school by working with the Mayo Clinic.
W. Kent Barnds, a vice president at Augustana College, concedes that it's getting tougher to make the sale. "It used to be that parents would take your word for it when you talked about a liberal arts education as fostering success in work and in life," he said. "Now, they want evidence."
That's just the kind of pragmatic talk Tom Thill wants to hear. The father of a senior at Marmion Academy in Aurora, Thill sees a college admissions process that has been hijacked by our culture's hyper-competitive influences.
He welcomes the course correction and is open to all options -- including having his son stay in state or start at nearby Waubonsee Community College -- not the usual ticket for a high-achiever at a private high school.
"There are a lot of routes to get to where you want to go," said Thill, 49, adding that he did "just fine" with his degree from Northern Illinois University. "So many kids today don't have any idea of what they want to do ... and no one can afford to throw out money anymore."
Sheryl Solomon, a mother of two from Wilmette, sees an increasing number of neighbors steering their kids into fields where employment remains strong. When her son, a 2011 graduate of New Trier High School, wanted to study jazz vocals at the University of Miami, she also worried about his ability to earn a living, but still supported his choice.
"We decided that a lot of people would be telling him 'no' ... and we didn't want to be among them," she said.
On his own, though, he realized that performing would be a tough road. So, when he returns to campus later this week, it will be with a new major: Music business. "I'm just glad he'll have more opportunities," she said.
Those are the kind of teachable moments cheered by Cliff Saper, a clinical psychologist at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates. Saper works with many teens who are angry, sad or apathetic about parental demands on their future choices. He is not an advocate of parents taking too strong a hand in choosing their child's major or career path.
"It usually backfires. ... More often than not, kids will do the exact opposite," Saper said.
Instead of forcing an artsy kid into finance, parents should use this transition to guide good decision-making, he said. They should be feeding information, sifting through the pros and cons and above all, keeping the lines of communication open.
"Where you want to be very clear is on parameters: 'Here's what we can afford. If you want to go to a more expensive school, we can do two years, but the next two years are on you,'" Saper said. "But I see kids still applying to 14 or 15 very competitive schools parents can't afford ... and everyone ending up frustrated."
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