In 2005, when it came time to pick a college, there wasn't quite the same level of shopping around. Not as much will-this-land-me-a-job scrutiny. And the odds of most students walking onto campus fully prepared? Not so hot.
Maine experts say it's a new day.
This fall, more 18-year-olds in Maine will head off to college, more will start at community colleges and more will stay in state, if trends hold.
Eight years might as well be an educational lifetime.
"Since 2005, there has definitely been a major, huge increase on the focus of better preparation by America's high schools for youngsters contemplating post-secondary study," said J. Duke Albanese, former Maine education commissioner and senior policy adviser for the Great Schools Partnership.
"The economy is demanding it," Albanese said. "These times demand more education."
Much has changed since the Sun Journal's Following the Freshmen series in 2005 started chronicling the college experiences of 15 local high school graduates — mostly for the better.
Students entering college this fall lived through the recent recession with a bleacher-seat-view of the job market.
"They're much more sophisticated in terms of looking at colleges that are going to get them to where they want to be," said Joan Macri, associate director of College for ME Androscoggin.
"And when they're looking at potential careers, they're trying to find ones that are going to be increasing in terms of jobs: health occupations, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers," she said. "There's a lot of work at the high school level to have the kids think about all of this; it's no more, 'Go to college and figure it out then.'"
For the college class of 2009, "It was a struggle," she said. "These kids were not graduating with jobs in hand."
Think compact car . . .
Not long ago, Jared Cash worried that Maine's college-going rates had peaked.
In 2005, when the Sun Journal's freshmen started, 60 percent of graduating high school students enrolled in college. That figure dipped to 57 percent the next year, according to figures from the Mitchell Institute.
Last fall, it climbed to 63 percent. Some 8,287 kids headed off to higher ed.
"It sort of debunked our aspirations thinking," said Cash, the institute's scholarship director.
Education trends tracked by the Mitchell Instutute over the past seven years:
* 71 percent of college-bound Maine high school grads are enrolling in-state, up from 67 percent.
* More students are making it to sophomore year, 84.5 percent, up from 84.1. (In Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties that increase was more dramatic, 82.9 percent, up from 79.3.)
* College debt is up, considerably.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average Maine full-time, first-time freshman borrowed $3,299 for the first year of college in 2003. By 2010, the latest year available, that had nearly doubled to $6,225.
"The cost has gone up so fast, faster than the cost of health care even, and families' ability to pay isn't going up at all," said Lisa Plimpton, director of research at the Mitchell Institute. "Financial aid (also) isn't going up fast enough to keep pace."
The first question Macri gets when it comes to college today is about debt.
She thinks it's led to more frank discussions between parent and student: "Here's what I'm comfortable taking on; here's what I'm not."
"Families are very nervous about this because no one feels that they're totally secure in their jobs," Macri said. "So the question is, can they afford to be saddled with a significant debt or should they be practical and say, 'OK, you can get your education at all of these schools that have your major, let's look and see what these packages look like and let's look and see what the average indebtedness is going to look like in four years?'
"Debt is OK as long as it's the price of a new car, and I'm talking a Honda Fit, not an SUV," Macri said. "Fifteen thousand dollars to $20,000 for four years, you can pay that off. It's when you get into the $20,000s, $30,000s, $40,000s, $50,000s and up that that becomes ridiculous, so let's be smart about this."
More differences for the college freshmen of 2005 versus freshmen today:
* The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) got easier.
It now auto-fills from the IRS, Macri said.
* Community college is getting more action. Thirty-eight percent of students who enrolled last year came straight from high school, according to the Maine Community College System. Ten years ago, that was 31 percent. Enrollment in that period has skyrocketed.
* High school grads in Androscoggin County today can start college with 12 credits in hand.
"They can take one tuition-free course (per semester) at any one of six colleges locally," Macri said. "We're looking for the B and C students who might not even see themselves as college material, and also going after guys who sometimes have horrible GPAs, but they're really smart. Once they get into a college classroom, they say, 'Oh, I like this; I don't have to ask permission to go to the bathroom.'"
A lifetime of difference
High school administrators are giving much more thought to college than they used to, Albanese said, to the point of using the number of their graduates enrolling in post-secondary education as one marker of their school's success.
"The context here is Maine hasn't had a strong college-going tradition," he said. "We remain the last in New England; we're about average nationally."
If students make it to the third semester? "Things look bright," Albanese said.
A lesson learned since 2005: The need for remedial courses signals caution ahead.
"If you have to sit for one remedial course, it's not good," he said. "If you get into the second remedial course, it usually means you're not going to finish. It's sort of a bellwether."
Colleges today, he said, seem more eager to offer additional tutors and help outside class instead of encouraging a remedial route.
Statewide, the latest figures show that more than one-third of those who enroll in college, 37.2 percent, graduate with a two-year or four-year degree inside of six years.
In Western Maine, that figure is 32.2 percent, though it isn't necessarily all bad news, Plimpton said.
"There may be more jobs for people; people are getting hired," she said. "I think a lot of times, especially in community college, after a year under your belt, if it's occupationally focused, you might get a job that you couldn't get right out of high school, so you put the rest of college on hold."
One thing that hasn't changed in eight years: The financial difference over a lifetime is still significant for those who complete college.
In 2010, Maine workers with bachelor's degrees earned $41,000 a year, on average, Cash said. Workers with associate degrees or some college, $30,325; workers with high school diplomas, $25,114.
The impact isn't immediate. It takes more than a decade for a college grad to earn as much as someone with a high school degree who immediately entered the labor force.
"But what happens after that is it takes off dramatically," Cash said. "Then you add in the factors like unemployment and how you whether economic storms; then it becomes a much more dramatic finish as the years go on."