Lured away

More high school grads are picking jobs over college to avoid debt, but George W. Bush and Al Gore offer competing plans to vault them into the ivory tower.

It's that time of year when college classes get rolling again. But not for Bryan Johnson and tens of thousands of other high school graduates who are going to work full time instead.

In his senior year this spring at a San Antonio high school, Mr. Johnson got a coveted "fat envelope" from Baylor University. He was accepted. But then he looked again at the price tag - and gulped.

"I could have gone to a four-year college, but I didn't want that debt burden to be on my parents," says Bryan, whose dad is a police officer and mom a security guard. So he grabbed a telemarketing job instead.

Now he hawks credit cards over the phone for about $8 an hour. He may go on to college after a tour in the Air Force.

Call it the lure of the hot economy, or, maybe it's the high cost of college combined with a dearth of grants for low-income students. Whatever the reason, after rising for decades, the number of spring high school graduates who go directly to college in the fall is dropping. Politicians often talk in glowing terms of soaring college enrollments and the public's new birthright to a college diploma. Overlooked in all that misty-eyed fervor is the fact that about 40 percent of the enrollment surge is "nontraditional age" students. Among traditional collegegoing students ages 18 to 24, it's a different story.

The hidden drop-off

Last year, the percentage of students who graduated from high school in the spring and then attended college in the fall fell for the second year in a row to 62.9 percent, down from 67 percent in 1997, says Thomas Mortenson, publisher of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a college-trends newsletter.

Despite an annually increasing number of high school graduates, the number who graduated last spring and went on to college last fall declined to 1,822,000, down from the 1997 peak of 1,856,000, says Mr. Mortenson, who analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data.

And that slide may well continue if Bryan's buddies - all new high school graduates - are any indication. Vaughn Bodine just landed a construction job. Daniel Fairley wears a headset, handling consumer calls for Citibank.

But if high school graduates - many from low-income families - choose short-term jobs instead of college, they may undercut not only their own future economic well-being, but the nation's too, many say.

Despite this, a drop in young collegegoers seems a mere sideshow in an election campaign glued to K-12 reform. Yet it looms as a potentially large political issue.

Polls show 87 percent of the public believes a college diploma is more critical than ever. A four-year degree holder earns on average about $57,000, compared with just $30,000 for someone with a high school diploma. Over a lifetime, it's a $1 million difference.

"These falling college continuation rates are politically and economically very important," Mortenson says. "These past two years were the first years of Mr. Clinton's Hope and Lifelong Learning federal income tax credits targeted to middle-income people - folks who make up to $100,000 and do not need them. It's been a popular political strategy even if it hasn't been that effective."

Presidential candidates' proposals

Indeed, higher education seemed last week to be emerging from the K-12 shadows as an issue on the stump with precisely this continuation issue at its core.

Vice President Al Gore (D) offered details of a plan to make college affordable to lower- and middle-income students. His goal: raise high school-to-college continuation rates to 75 percent and college completion to 50 percent.

To do that, Mr. Gore proposed a $36 billion plan to let taxpayers choose between a $10,000 tax deduction or a tax credit of $2,800 annually on college tuition. He also pumped a new type of retirement account that also pays for college, and a national tuition savings plan.

The tax break, however, would provide only modest benefits to the low-tax-bracket individuals who might be most expected to help raise the continuation rate, analysts say. Meanwhile, the Gore plan supports "strong increases" in Pell Grant funding for low-income students, but offers no budget numbers.

David Baim, director of governmental relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, applauds most of Gore's higher-education plan, but admits "disappointment" that increases for the Pell program remain vague.

If the policymakers want to boost collegegoing, they should focus grant aid on low-income students and go easy on tax credits for middle-class children who would likely go anyway, he and others say.

Responding to critics, the Gore camp says it is committed to helping lower-income students with Pell Grants and other federal programs.

Of course, Gore rival Gov. George W. Bush (R) touts college savings accounts and tax deductions, too. But analysts say his plan is focusing on low-income families, a key group of swing voters.

Mr. Bush's biggest proposal is a $5 billion increase over five years in federal Pell Grant funding for low-income college students. He also wants a $1.5 billion "challenge plan" to give states an incentive to target grants to people with low incomes.

"The Bush plan, while flawed in some respects, has at least put a Pell funding figure on the table," Mr. Baim says. "It would be very beneficial to our students."

Among the potential beneficiaries most affected by Bush's plan are Hispanic families, one of the largest and most important new voting constituencies in key states like Texas, Florida, and California.

Nearly two-thirds of Hispanic parents say college is the single factor young people most need to succeed, compared with 47 percent of African-American parents and 33 percent of white parents, according to a poll by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"It makes a huge difference because their options are to go to work - or to accumulate a lot of debt," says Antonio Flores, president of the San Antonio-based Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. "Right now, aid is mainly loans and a little bit of grants. They've pumped grants up a little bit, but it's not keeping up with college costs."

New high school graduates go to work, start making a little money, and begin to feel like they are doing well when really they are "just barely making ends meet," Mr. Flores continues. "They get trapped by the enticement of a job, maybe $7 as a bus boy. But it saps their energy to go back to school."

Just ask Denise Rangel, a 23-year-old Hispanic San Antonio resident and full-time waitress. She graduated from high school in 1995 and attended the University of Texas for a semester after high school. But faced with big student loans, she quit to earn money as a waitress.

Today Ms. Rangel is barely hanging on at a junior college, which she pays for herself. She has one loan left over from UT for $2,500 - and that's enough. It might seem to some a success that she's in college at all. Yet this belt-tight approach has pared back her dreams, too. She's given up on being a psychologist. And even after five years of part-time study, she still has one more year to get an associate's degree in photography.

"I don't qualify for that much financial aid, considering I don't have a kid or anything," she says. "I knew it was going to be hard [financially]; I didn't think it was going to be this hard."

Bush says his higher limit on Pell Grant funds for first-year students ($5,300, up from $3,100) would help 800,000 more low-income students like Rangel go to college each year.

"The Bush plan is clearly geared toward lower-income college students," says Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council for Education in Washington.

Texas Travails

Bush could have a field day, hammering Gore with the decline in college continuation rates and touting his plan to expand access. But he may have a credibility problem as far as collegegoing goes.

The national rate for low-income students attending college rose from 20 percent to 27.5 percent from 1992 to 1998, a credible performance for the Clinton administration even if most of the tax-credit aid went to middle-class families.

In Texas, about 16 percent of low-income students went to college in the 1990s. And most states did much better than Texas in improving the rate at which low-income students went to college between 1992 and 1998, according to Mortenson. With no improvement or decline, Texas ranked 48th, while Connecticut had the most improvement.

"Those rankings don't reflect important policy initiatives passed by Governor Bush in the legislature last year," says Ray Sullivan, a Bush spokesman. He points to a $100 million state college grant program for low-income students, new funding for minority colleges, and the "10 percent rule" granting automatic admission to Texas colleges for any student in the top tenth of their high school classes.

Still, for some poor folks from Texas, the path to a four-year degree lies beyond state borders. Take, for example, Leslie Prieto. The 1997 high school graduate was at her financial limit last year. She was working part time and struggling to attend Palo Alto College, a community college near San Antonio. It cost her about $1,000 a year. By contrast, a four-year degree at a state university seemed well beyond her means at about $3,000 a year.

Last month, though, Ms. Prieto transferred to the University of Northern Iowa at Cedar Falls. That school's new diversity initiative pays for her tuition, room, and board. Now, the last barrier keeping her from getting a four-year degree has fallen. "I didn't think I was going to get this far," she says. "My brother and sister all got jobs after high school. No one has a degree, so I didn't see it for myself, either. Now I'm this far along, and God is good, so I'm just going to do what he wants me to do."

But the question of college is purely academic to Lance Strickland, a San Antonio high school senior. Asked about his college plans next year, he laughs. He's going to leap right into the workforce like his brother. "I'd like to work at a shoe store or a sporting goods store," he says. "Or I could do telemarketing. You just sit there and call people at home and ask them if they want to buy stuff."

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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