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An Uncertain Outlook For High School Students

(Soundbite of bell)


That bell signals the end of second period at Fairfax High School. Before the 2,100 students here completely flood the hallway of this Virginia school, one grabs the chance to hand college recommendation forms to guidance counselor Renee Service.


Ms. RENEE SERVICE (Guidance Counselor, Fairfax High School): Did you send your applications out yet? You did? OK. All right, we'll get it out.

ROBERTS: Here at Fairfax High, winter break just ended, and seniors and a few juniors are trying to figure out where they'll go to college and, in these tough economic times, how they'll pay for it. Renee Service says in an ideal year, she gives students a six college rule.

Ms. SERVICE: Pick two schools that are reaches, two schools that are maybes. You pretty much fall in the range of what the school wants. You should get in, but you never know what's going to happen when you get the application to the admissions office. And then your last two are your definites.

ROBERTS: But nothing about the future seems definite this year. For our series "Faces of the New Economy," Service introduced us to six kids - James Lee(ph), Catherine Johnson(ph), Nicole Bane(ph), Jose Abarca(ph), Mitch Bowen(ph), and Ryan Larson(ph). They're all good students. They all hope to go to college and study everything from architecture to politics.

Unidentified Man #1: When I got my letter from Dartmouth, they broke it down, tuition, room and board, transportation, miscellaneous fees, student costs, textbooks, all that stuff, and it adds up to about 52,000. It's scary sometimes to look at it in that sense.


Ms. CATHERINE JOHNSON (Student, Fairfax High School):: My name is Catherine, and Hampton University is a private institution, and it's about 27,800 and, I think, 40 dollars a year. And I've been talking about this school since I was in 10th grade, and the price never really got to me until like this year, and I was like, oh, this is a lot of money. OK, where am I going to get this, from the sky? No? OK. And so I broadened my horizons, and I applied for Old Dominion University. I got in, and it's literally half the tuition. So it's either my dream school or the school down the street. It's me who has to figure out which one do I want to do.

Ms. NICOLE BANE (Student, Fairfax High School): My situation is almost identical to Catherine's. Like, I got into Charleston, and it's $35,000 a year. It's kind of hard. I almost, almost wish that I, like, hadn't gotten into Charleston because it's like harder, like, I'm good enough to go to my dream school, but I can't pay for it.

Mr. JOSE ABARCA (Student, Fairfax High School): My name is Jose Abarca and things in my house are a bit different. I mean, I'm only a junior. I haven't applied to any colleges. But it's kind of discouraging knowing how the economy is, where should I apply? Should I just go to a community college or join the military? Those are my options right now.

Ms. BANE: I have a job. It's a part-time job. I put 15 percent of my check away. I've been doing it since I was 14, so I have about $3,000 saved up. But that'll cover what? Like two books.

Mr. ABARCA: For the past month, my Dad has been out of work for about a week or so. So, his hours are cut down. My Mom's hours are cut down.

Ms. BANE: And my Mom took on a third job just to help.

Unidentified Man #2: My Mom had stayed home ever since I was born for me and my brother, and now, just this last year, she's had to go back to work. And my dad retired last year, and now my dad's going back to work, just to get me through college. And then, they're going to have to worry about my brother also.

Mr. ABARCA: And my mom, she has five kids, and the youngest being six and they're twins. And even if I do get accepted to a college and they give me financial aid, she has to take care of them. I have to take care of myself. So, this is when we need to, like, stick together the most.

Ms. JOHNSON: I have two little sisters, and they're both brilliant, like, they're smarter than I am. And they're both going to go to really good schools. And if the economy keeps, like, going on this decline, I don't want to take money away from them, like, to go to college now, like, just in case because then they might not have a chance so.

Mr. ABARCA: My mom keeps saying we can just get a bunch of loans. And my dad just says, just join is the easiest thing to do. But I don't know how the military works. I don't know, you know, if the war is going to get any worse.

Ms. BANE: Yeah, my mom has three jobs, so it doesn't work for us when it comes to, like, scholarships because it's like, oh, yeah your mother makes about $75,000 a year. Well, yeah, that's with three jobs. And then she just - she's a first-time homebuyer. We just bought a condo. And so she has that new mortgage to pay, which is a lot different. And it's just really hard to find out where we are going to get the money. I applied to about three scholarships. Didn't get them. So, I'm like, great, and I'm not - I mean, like I'm a good student. But I'm not - I don't have like a 4.444.

Unidentified Man #3: Like, I emailed the swimming coach, and he was like, oh, well, if you get these times, I can help pull for you. And of course that would get you more money or get you in even more. But the times that they have are like ridiculously fast, like Olympic times. So, I was like, well, I guess I'm not doing that now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: The months are like going by quickly. And I'm like, this is a really hard decision. I thought that I'd be like, Hampton, woo, let's go. And now I'm like, wait a minute, let's rethink this. And I'm kind of glad I'm here because I thought I was the only person struggling. And I'm not. I'm so happy about that.

ROBERTS: That was Fairfax High School senior Catherine Johnson. She was joined by classmates, Ryan Larson, Jose Abarca, Nicole Bane, Mitch Bowen, and James Lee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.