Taking a look at Madison, WI high schools

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Community Reporting
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The following articles were part of a group project at the University of Wisconsin in conjunction with The Isthmus and its website The Daily Page to look at educational issues in Madison, WI. The articles below were written in a joint effort by Benjie Klein, Jodie Stern, and Rachel Shulman focusing on Wisconsin High Schools. They were published on February 8, 2010, links are included to the original publication.

College Costs the Top Concern for Madison High School Seniors


Although high school seniors perennially struggle to make decisions about life after graduation, given the current economic climate, the class of 2010 is evaluating its options more carefully than ever.

“We used to talk very little about what it costs to go to college,” says Jena Acker, head guidance counselor at LaFollette High School here in Madison.

Current economic conditions, however, make the cost of college one of the primary considerations of seniors and their parents.

Five years ago, parents emphasized getting their kids into the best four-year college possible, says Acker. She notes that the economic downturn created a shift in conversations with parents and students, from discussions of the top schools to “here are the options and here is what these options cost. Now we need to make good decisions based on that.”

In addition to feeling the pressure to make fiscally responsible choices, students must work harder for financial aid and scholarships.

“The financial aid game definitely picks up steam after January, but they really need to be serious about it when they get to school in the fall,” says Len Mormino, a guidance counselor at Madison West High School. “I think we’ve got as many students as ever before going after scholarships.”

Doubts surrounding the ability of financial aid packages to fully cover college expenses lead students to consider more prudent post-graduate plans.

Seniors who originally hoped to attend a school outside of Wisconsin before the economic downturn now consider staying in-state as a way to cut back on tuition costs. For those looking for an option a bit further from their hometowns, the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota offer tuition reciprocity, which allows students from both states to pay close to their in-state rate. The Midwest Student Exchange, a multi-state tuition reciprocity program, presents another affordable option, allowing students to save between $500 and $3,000 in annual tuition costs.

“Those kinds of things are more attractive now in tough economic times,” says Mormino.

Guidance counselors continue to encounter an increase in the number of students considering two-year programs as well.

“It used to be that almost all parents wanted their kids to go to a four-year school – that was the best path. And now I think that families are reconsidering because of the status of the economy. I think that they’re making better decisions based on the fact that money is tight,” says Acker.

Acker says the economic climate is forcing many parents to reconsider their old biases against vocational schools like Madison Area Technical College (MATC). She says that MATC recruiting events help parents realize “it’s not the technical college that you once knew – this is a brand new opportunity.”

“When families start to see [reduced financial aid], they’re going to opt for a more affordable [education] like MATC” says Acker.

In the meantime, students appear much more enthusiastic about MATC than their parents, says Acker.

LaFollette senior Jeremiah Lairson agrees. “MATC is a lot better than people think it is,” he says.

According to Acker, students view these two-year programs as stepping-stones to employment in a difficult job market. “I think that there is a greater need for a technical school or MATC, and a lot of our kids are taking that option right off the bat,” she says.

Acker and Mormino also noticed an increased awareness of two-year transfer programs this year. These types of programs enable students who have completed two-year degrees at a technical or community college to automatically transfer to a four-year college like UW-Madison as long as they maintain adequate GPAs. This option allows students to cut back on the cost of their post-secondary education without sacrificing a four-year degree.

“I think that colleges make known the transfer option more than ever before,” says Mormino.

Claire Dawson, a LaFollette senior, has decided on the two-year liberal arts transfer program at MATC because it represents the most financially feasible option for herself and her family.

“Going to MATC in Madison is my main focus because I want to live at home to save money,” she says. “I know I’m going to pay for my college no matter what, so I just want to put in as little as possible.”

Acker estimates that MATC costs an average of $3,675 per year, compared with UW-Madison’s price tag of $8,313 per year for in-state undergraduate tuition.

Both MATC and UW-Madison have noticed a heightened interest in more affordable options. According to Bill Bessette, a MATC spokesman, the school saw a 20-percent increase in enrollment for degree credit courses during the summer of 2009, and a 12-percent increase in enrollment for the fall semester. This increase includes both graduating seniors, as well as workers trying to update their job skills to become more marketable candidates.

“We are kind of bursting at the seams right now,” he says.

The number of students qualifying for and receiving Pell Grants (federal, need-based scholarships given to low-income undergraduates) at UW-Madison increased substantially this academic year. Susan Fischer, Director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, revealed that 3,600 undergraduates received Pell Grants during the 2008-2009 academic year. The Office has already awarded 4,000 such grants for 2009-2010.

“We have certainly had an increase in [financial aid] appeals,” Fischer says.

Students are even adjusting their career expectations to meet the needs of today’s market. Seniors at LaFollette High School says they track job forecasts and can name the jobs that are in high-demand, despite the economy.

“I really like art but, in the long run, I don’t think that would be very beneficial, because I think it would be harder to find a job,” says LaFollette senior Sarah Beske, who believes that psychology would be a more practical course of study.

Acker concurs. “I think that kids are hesitant to say I want to do this [career] because they may know that that major or that career is not hiring right now.”

However, as the economy continues on its unpredictable path and post-graduation plan-making remains as complicated as ever, there seems to be only one approach for seniors across the spectrum.

Lairson sums it up best, “Ultimately, you decide what is best for you, and you decide how to get there.”

La Follette Seniors Identify Economic Concerns, Strategies


Preparing for the cost of college in today’s economy can leave high school students feeling as if they’re taking the biggest gamble of their lives. With an economic climate showing few signs of rebound, seniors at Madison LaFollette High School are struggling over how to best use their limited savings.

For many seniors, the prevailing attitude that college offers the best path after graduation has been transformed by the realities of today’s economic climate. Now more seniors see college as the best path only if they can manage the risk of debt.

Claire Dawson has decided to deal with increased financial burdens by focusing on the most economically practical path for herself and her family – the two-year liberal arts transfer program at Madison Area Technical College (MATC).

“I hear a lot of things about MATC like, oh, they’ll accept anyone,” Dawson says. “My GPA is pretty high, and I have a high class rank, so that’s why people say that I could do better than MATC, but I don’t look at it that way.”

Dawson explains that choosing the two-year transfer program at MATC over the full four-year college experience is something that she wants to do to help out her family financially. “If it’s cheaper and a comparable experience, why not go to MATC?”

Dawson says the college’s transfer program makes sense for her, because it will prepare her for a career in nursing. “The reason I want to go into nursing is because there’s a big demand for it,” she says.

She knows her decision to save money by living at home and attending MATC means some serious trade-offs. Dawson realizes she will miss out on the typical college dorm life, fraternity parties, and the initial experience of newfound independence.

However, she seems comfortable with her decision. “Right now, I don’t feel like I’ll regret it,” Dawson says. She explains that, no matter what she or anyone else thinks of MATC, once enrolled she will take comfort in the knowledge that she is saving money. “That takes some of the tension off,” she says.

While her peers scramble to finish their personal statements for college applications, Dawson can sit back and relax, knowing that she’s already set on a path. If anything, watching her friends stress over admissions makes her nervous. “I feel like I’m missing something,” she explains.

Hailey Alfred, another senior at LaFollette, recently discovered that her military mom could transfer GI Bill benefits to her. Before the discovery, Alfred considered taking a year off between high school and college to work and save money.

“I was thinking. . . is going to college for four years and racking up all of this debt really going to be worth it, or should I just continue working?” she explains.

But, with the GI bill benefits – $30,000 per year plus a monthly stipend – Alfred could expand her options. She says her mother, a master sergeant in the National Guard currently deployed in Iraq, became aware of the G.I. Bill’s untapped potential after doing some research and talking to colleagues this past fall.

“That opened doors to anywhere I wanted to go,” says Alfred, “It was a huge relief. . . I had no idea how we were going to pay for [college].”

Like Dawson, Alfred weighed the bleak job market when deciding on her top school choices. She explains, “I love to write and that was my original career path – I wanted to be a journalist – but now everything is shifting over to online, and print journalism is kind of dying out, so I had to explore something else that I would still enjoy.”

She is now focused on political science as a potential major, and is especially interested in the pre-law program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Invoking an old cliché, she remarks, “The three things that you’re always going to need are a doctor, a lawyer, and a mortician.”

Not all students are so lucky. David Santos, whose family emigrated from Mexico City eight years ago, could be the first in his family to go to college. But he currently gets little support from home.

“My mom doesn’t really push for [college],” he explains. “She should be more involved. . . My dad is in Mexico right now so he doesn’t really count as an option [to help me with my decision].”

One of Santos’ older brothers is urging him to go straight to college after graduation. Although Santos’ top choice for next fall is MATC, he questions his ability to afford it. “I’m absolutely looking at scholarships,” he says. If scholarship money is insufficient, he will get a job after graduation to save money for college, or he might try attending college part-time while working part-time.

Ironically, the weak economy makes it easier for senior Jeremiah Lairson to afford college. Both of his parents recently went back to school to gain a competitive advantage in today’s difficult job market. “[My dad] couldn’t find jobs because he basically got beat out by people who had less experience but had bachelor’s degrees. . . So that’s what made him go back to school,” he explains.

Because everyone in his family currently attends school, Lairson received a hefty financial aid package. Viterbo University in La Crosse also offered Lairson a scholarship based on his high ACT score.

Lairson, who is passionate about musical theatre, says the economic climate has made him reconsider following his dreams. Recently, he started to explore music education, because he believes teaching offers greater job security than the performing arts. “There’s a high need for teachers in low income areas,” he explains.

As these LaFollette seniors explore their options in today’s economic climate, one question will continue to weigh on their minds: Have they chosen the right path? Dawson, Alfred, Santos, and Lairson hope their strategies will balance the risk of debt with the reward of a college education.

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