More teens trade summer jobs for college prep

This summer, James Hamill had a choice. The Florida 15-year-old could have applied for a job renting canoes at a local state park, or bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie with a friend. Or, he could wake up at 5 every morning for football practice, study advanced placement physics all day, lift weights all evening, and be in bed by nine – "eight if I'm lucky," he says.

He chose to develop his quadriceps and his quantum mechanics, joining a growing number of teens who are forsaking traditional summer jobs to strengthen their shot at admission to top colleges.

James says he has no regrets. Accepting an invitation to practice weight-lifting at the US Olympic training center, he reckons, makes it more likely that Stanford University will accept him.

Still, he talks wistfully about how simple his summer might have been: "It sounds like a whole lot of fun actually," he says, "just being outdoors, being with my friends."

It's a tale being repeated in the lives of high-schoolers across America. College prep is displacing the old routines of sometimes-rigorous work and always-rigorous play that once held sway in the sweltering months between school years.

This summer, fewer than 58 percent of teens are expected to enter the US workforce – the lowest participation rate among 16- to 19-year-olds since the Labor Department started keeping statistics in 1948. Participation last July stood at 60.6 percent.

Part of the reason, of course, is the economy: During slumps there are fewer jobs available, particularly for teens. This time, to boot, more teens from middle-income families aren't even trying to work. They'd rather engage in unpaid internships or academic pursuits that will catch the eye of competitive schools. Fewer are enjoying the pleasures of the swimming-hole or learning the mundane virtue of punching a timecard at Sears.

While some worry about youths becoming too serious too soon, many experts say it's a sign of the nation's increasing prosperity that growing numbers of teens are able to spend their summers in activities for which they aren't getting paid – and for which their parents often pay handsomely.

Ron Bird, chief economist at the Economic Policy Foundation, a group that analyzes labor force data, says that's all to the good. The labor market can spare teens now in order to have them better prepared for the technically demanding jobs of the future.

"The job opportunities in the future are requiring higher and higher levels of educational attainment," he says. "And we need to do everything that we can to encourage young people to pursue that."

Teens across the nation seem to be taking that advice. Over the past decade, the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds enrolled in academic summer programs has jumped from 13.6 percent in 1992 to 31 percent last July.

Those who follow the world of college admissions say rising admissions standards are exacerbating this trend.

Judy Grand, who counsels college-bound students at a St. Louis prep school, says her advice has gotten starker. "Even though it's only October," she warns, "you need to think about what you're going to do next summer, because it can generate a good college essay, and can look good."

But many parents and teachers worry that the mounting pressures are overburdening people at a vulnerable age. Marky Stein, a private career counselor in Silicon Valley, says she has seen the results firsthand. Some 19-year-olds have come to her for advice, holding master's degrees but lacking the emotional maturity to handle the adult workplace. Teens "need to have fun – and to spend at least some time hanging out with friends" to develop socially, she insists. "Their personalities aren't fully-formed."

James's mom, Mary Hamill, says she's not crazy about the trend. At her son's age she sold cheese in a mall for the summer. Her husband, Matt, was a lifeguard. She says the remembers the thrill of being responsible for money for the first time. Now president of a communications firm, she says when they graduated from high school in the mid-70s, "It was nice if you went to college, but you certainly didn't have to. Now everybody goes to college – and not just any college."

Some economists say that the trend of teens not working, for all its pros and cons, is a logical step in the nation's development. The economy grows an average of 3 percent a year, boosting average incomes every generation, says Glenn MacDonald, an economist Washington University in St. Louis. As society gets richer, it natural that "we're gonna consume more things, we're gonna take more leisure where we can get away with it, we're gonna provide more for our kids."

Providing more, Mary Hamill says, was the bottom line in the decision to let James go without a job this summer. "We looked at the opportunities that James has in front of him, which are far greater than the opportunities that Matt and I had in front of us, and thought [requiring a job] just wasn't keeping up with the reality of how our lives have evolved."

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