Scouting your future

The cost of a college education has skyrocketed over the past several decades, and anxious families want to get the most out of their investment in their children's college education.

In the best of times, scrimping and saving may not be enough to meet the high cost of tuition. Some beleaguered parents refinance their homes; others tap into retirement accounts to cover the immediate costs. Students, over the course of their education, may become saddled with loans that take years to repay.For these reasons alone, where to apply to school requires careful thought. One concrete suggestion would be for students to enroll at the local community college for two years and transfer, rather than spending $40,000 a year at a private college for a full four years. Many community colleges are jewels with an array of excellent departments, highly-skilled instructors and professional help when it comes time to transfer.

The assumption has long been held that by attending a competitive college one would find a better job or meet the connections to do so. Yet wherever students attended, there were fewer recruiters on college campuses the last few years.

Now, when one is fresh out of college, finding gainful employment can be a dream deferred. With little or no luck finding a job, graduates cannot strike out on their own, and many move back home with Mom and Dad. They realize full well it may take months to get settled, and the position they settle on may be well be below their initial expectations or simply very different.

The kind of positions that are available have changed. For many years, a computer science major opened the door to a lucrative career. This is no longer the case, and many computer science departments have seen a decline in enrollment.

Some talented young teachers that were hired this past September have been given pink slips because of the impending state budget cuts. Such was the experience of an acquaintance of mine who was teaching a bilingual Spanish-English class in a nearby urban school district. Last month, he was called out of his classroom by the principal. She requested he come with her to the second grade. When he entered that class, taught by another novice, the local television cameras blared as the principal lamented both teachers would be let go at the end of the year because of budget cuts.

My acquaintance was humiliated. Later, the principal apologized by saying she had no other way of making clear what was happening in the schools. The need for states to balance their budgets while federal deficit zooms into the stratosphere filled her with chagrin. She inferred his pink slip could possibly be rescinded, however, the class size would double from 16 to 32. He then agonized over what it would be like to work with such a large group and privately lamented his choice of teaching as a career.

In times such as these, some young people become angry and bitter. Others will bite the bullet and focus on finding the best available, if not optimal, solution until times change for the better. Difficult economic times demand creative solutions, which could well involve taking a self-inventory.

Long ago, I received some advice in another economic downturn. To paraphrase, it was to look back and remember what you wanted to be when 10 years old before people told you that you needed to work for a living. What did you really want to do? Where were your dreams? Therein may lay the answer to your search or at least another route to ponder.

I completed my own doctorate during the last serious economic downturn in the early 1980s. With a degree from one of the most prestigious colleges in the nation, publications and excellent references, the hundreds of resumes I sent out came back with zero. I was broke, disheartened and confused about the future.

This uncertain state lasted for months until I realized that if I did not take action, my daughter and I would need public assistance. What I came up with was not concrete, but an abstraction, which later turned into a business. My gift, of which everyone has at least a bit, was in motivating and encouraging others. The question was where to put that.

I thought about a television show, Marcus Welby M.D., which featured a doctor who not only treated illness but also offered homilies and affirmations to his patients. From that thought sprang the concept of a learning center or general practice in education. Other learning centers such as Sylvan had the same idea at the same time. And, yes, my dream profession has kept me going and stimulated over many years.

Where, you may ask, did the money come from to start a business? Well, in my case there was no money, just a desk provided by a friend in the back of a small storefront day care center. Advertising consisted of letters written to parents and posted in the window. I visited schools, called professionals in the area, put handbills on cars.

My first client was rejected by the day care center because he was disruptive, the second and third were behind in reading. But word spread, and by the fall, I brought in a math tutor, and within a year the business was on its way.

Some recent college graduates would do well to take the path of independence and become entrepreneurs, though this kind of risk-taking is not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to work around the clock.

What steps can young people take while in college to prepare themselves as successful as they can for the job market after graduation? Internships can be wonderful in building up a resume and opening the door to a job. A former student of mine is graduating from New York University this June with honors. She attended Council Rock High School in Newtown and was always interested in journalism, especially about music.

After her junior year in high school, we found her an internship at a talent agency in New York. She worked there three days a week and lived with friends of her family. This unpaid internship became a paid job after she moved to the city and began college.

Over the years, this young girl became indispensable to the owner of the agency, published articles and got to know the business. She spent her junior year of college in London and contributed information about the local music scene to her employers back home. Now a full-time employee with a substantial salary, her future is rosy. Although this young woman's experience may seem unique, it is not: it is being replicated by other ambitious young people.

Another determined individual I know has aspirations to enter the field of marketing. She is a consummate athlete and has won awards for her skiing. While working at the X-Games, she was in the athlete lounge having conversations with various people. Little did she know, one of the people she was chatting with the vice president of OGIO International, who then offered her a sponsorship right on the spot. She happily agreed, and in the fall, they sent her to their headquarters in Utah to help design their 2004 line of ladies' ski backpacks.

She promoted herself by going to the X-Games in Philadelphia for the past two years, where she spoke to people about being a freestyle skier. Throughout this time, she developed invaluable connections with public relations firms. This young lady has not yet graduated from high school and is already on her way. Bold and with considerable chutzpah, she is confident about the future.

Scouting out prospective professions by volunteering is an invaluable learning experience. For example, even though schools may be closing doors to new teachers, there are other venues for someone with an education background. Schools and day care centers exist in hospitals, prisons and industrial sites. Downward economic trends require having a broad vision and honing additional skills to increase marketability. Hard times can be the most creative when we become open to our own inner resources.