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Economy weighs on grads plans
Students coping with HOPE cuts and economic downturn
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Flowery Branch High School graduation coach Stephanie Gibbs talks with seniors James Boddie and Nichole Welborn about their future plans. - photo by Tom Reed

The recession started when they entered high school in 2007.

It ended somewhere around their sophomore to junior year, but a robust recovery still hasn't kicked in for the current crop of graduates.

If anything, things seem to be getting worse: Gas prices are touching $4 a gallon and the HOPE Scholarship, the long-expected reward for B-average students, was cut dramatically by this year's Georgia legislature.

Still, "I think the overall mood is pretty positive," said Stefanie Gibbs, graduation coach at Flowery Branch High. "They know there are going to be challenges, whereas before it was just they've got to work hard and do well in classes.

"Now it's you've got to work hard to pass your classes and you're probably going to have to have a part-time job to help pay for books and supplement (what) HOPE's not going to take care of."

Students are pressing forward with college, rather than taking a year off to earn money and then forge ahead, because they fear a further stripping of HOPE, Gibbs said.

"Who knows what's going to happen two years down the road?" she added.

As for future careers, she has found that many students tend to be idealistic, rather than pragmatic.

"I think that parents are much more aware of ‘We want you to be happy, but you're not going to get a job with'" whatever degree in a field showing less promise for jobs, Gibbs said.

"You hate to destroy their dreams, but they've got to be realistic," she added.

Kay Holleman, lead counselor at Gainesville High School, said many students don't even know what they want to do with their lives upon graduation.

"A lot of them are going to liberal arts schools, where they can make choices and they might know they want to be in a field - maybe science or math - but they don't know what career they want to go with that," Holleman said.

Otherwise, the economic downturn has "definitely" affected the way students view their futures, she said.

"Some of the kids are choosing to stay and live with their parents and go to a local school," Holleman said.

"... We are very fortunate we have a lot of schools in our surrounding area."

Counselors have talked with seniors about how to cope with HOPE cutbacks, including summer jobs that involve saving more money for college and considering giving up living in a dormitory.

She said Gainesville High has had a strong year with students earning athletic and academic full-ride scholarships. She estimates the total amount will fall between $3 million and $3.5 million.

Eleanor Walker, 18, is one student benefiting that way.

The Gainesville High senior is set to attend Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. She expects to receive a scholarship that will cover about 80 percent of her expenses.

"I will be going to Stanford for less than some of my friends who are going to Georgia Tech or UGA. It's crazy," said Walker, a Gainesville native.

Stanford's financial package was the deciding factor in her college choices.

"I didn't want to put an undue burden on my parents and I didn't want to graduate with student loans," Walker said.
She said she believes the economy has "scared people away" from applying at bigger schools when those are the ones with richer endowments.

"They are very well off," Walker said. "They have millions of dollars set aside for scholarships."

Looking at a degree in either neuroscience or the humanities, she also has considered life beyond college.

And that might include graduate school, where, "hopefully, I can ride out the poor economy," Walker said.

"I wouldn't like to enter the workforce until we are on an upswing."

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