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."
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