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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Nelson Warr works as a staff assistant at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.
I think the recession kind of brought the notion home that it's not as cut and dry as just going to college and getting a job once you graduate. It takes a lot more now to get employed. You have to get internships and potentially get a graduate degree. —Eric Otto, student

SALT LAKE CITY — Nelson Warr spends his days as a student at the University of Utah maintaining his 4.0 GPA, prepping for Model European Union competitions, serving on the Student Government Relations Board, and spearheading youth voter initiatives and media outreach in his job as a student staffer at the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

It's not just that Warr is passionate about politics. He's also driven by the need to build a resume and separate himself from the thousands of other students who are balancing debt, degrees and the changing job landscape ahead for students.

Students are chasing their own version of the American Dream, said Tim Chambless, professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. And the economic realities of 2013 are making the journey more difficult than before.

“They are hopeful that they can have as good of life if not a better life than their parents,” Chambless said. “They do it because there is a vision, an expectation if you will, that there will be a long-term gain. You’re in debt now, you sacrifice now, with the hope that someday you can have the American dream.”

Still, Chambless warns that the problems graduates face are real. “I have a fear, however, that if we don’t make some major adjustments in the structure of our economy, that this new generation will be the first generation that will have to learn to live with less rather than more.”

The challenges are sobering:

• A Wall Street Journal analysis revealed that among households headed by people with student debt who attended graduate school and are under 35, the average student loan debt climbed to $81,758 in 2010, up from $55,594 in 2007.

• Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, and half of 2012 college graduates were either jobless or underemployed.

• The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. awarded 126,214 MBAs in the 2010-2011 school year, 74 percent more than in 2000. Some educators and employers are now saying that the growth of MBA programs and the number of graduates is threatening to lessen the value of the degree.

There is demand for engineers and those in the sciences. But those in liberal arts, humanities and other degrees who push on to business school or law school are facing a new economic reality: Education is not just about pursuing a paycheck, but can I really afford to pursue the American Dream the way my parents did?

“I’m going to do what’s most interesting to me,” Warr said. “And looking to my future, I’m sticking to my plan of continuing my education by going to law school.”

The Deseret News sat down with Warr and six other students and advisers and discovered all the students were aware of the challenges, but share a common trait: They are going to do it anyway.

The students

Eric Otto, a sophomore business major at the University of Utah, has dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, but not before he completes internships, gains experience working for a firm and potentially pursues an MBA.

“I think the recession kind of brought the notion home that it’s not as cut and dry as just going to college and getting a job once you graduate,” Otto says. “It takes a lot more now to get employed. You have to get internships and potentially get a graduate degree.”

Erin Brown, a biology student at Westminster College, is trying to get into a top physician’s assistant program. To make her application more competitive, Brown is working to have 2,000 hours of on the job experience working as a certified nursing assistant, despite the 500- to 1,000-hour standard requirement. 

“Not all of the (physician's assistant) schools require a certain amount of hours to get in but it does come very highly preferred,” Brown said. Her calculation is to put in the extra time to get into a better program that could cost her up to $100,000 when her schooling is completed.

“I’ll have a wide number of job offers when I graduate and a great, flexible career with a high starting salary.”

Tianna Tu, a political science major at the University of Utah, is trying to build an impressive resume. Tu, who has completed seven internships and campus leadership positions while maintaining a nearly perfect GPA, said the sacrifices she is making now are a small price to pay for getting into the law school of her dreams.

“Experience is something you cannot replace. I am investing in my future now by being willing to sacrifice sleep and money for experience and opportunity,” Tu said.

Nathan Hamill, an International Studies and Political Science major at the University of Utah, is focused on setting himself apart, while still exploring what interests him. He works at a law firm; is pursuing minors in side interests, like History and Middle Eastern Studies; competes in Model Arab League, and is studying Arabic.

He also intends on studying abroad in the Middle East to perfect his Arabic before he graduates. “I want to gain a successful, marketable utility to differentiate myself from the field, but I also want to have a fun semester abroad,” Hamill said.

Hamill, who plans to pursue a graduate degree, said he is not worried about his future.  

“I’m going to do what I want to do. If it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Liz Behrens, a psychology major at Westminster College, is worried about the debt she will have to incur to get a master's degree in social work. “I’m really nervous because it will take me a lot longer to pay it off than most people because I’ll make a lot less money, even with a master's degree,” Behrens said.

Still, Behrens plans on applying to top programs out-of-state, despite the cost. “I don’t think I’ll apply in-state at all because I want move somewhere new and the best programs are out of state,” Behrens said. “It’s going to be a rewarding career for me. I feel like I can make a big impact working with marginalized populations. I won’t make as much money, but I think I’ll be happier.”

Joseph Brinton, a political science major at the University of Utah, is looking into top graduate programs in education. Brinton says he’s not worried about acquiring the debt associated with graduate school.

“First of all, you have the rest of your life to pay it off,” Brinton said. “I really like helping people and I’m starting to care less and less about my future economic status and more about what I’m going to do to help the world.”

Debt vs. opportunity

Kris Tina Carlston, a pre-law and pre-MBA advisor at BYU, says her office is trying to walk students through the cost-benefit analysis of going to graduate school.

“We’re really trying to be proactive,” Carlston said. “We counsel our students to have good credit now. If you’re planning on going to graduate school, it’s helpful that you have an emergency fund and have as little undergraduate debt as possible.”

“I’ll have a frank conversation of debt versus opportunity with each student,” said Carlston. “It’s a continuum. The opportunity provided by some schools makes debt worth it, and others not.”

Carlston says she tries to encourage students to look at both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of their applications.

“There’s always going to be a quantitation aspect to the calculation. Do well in school. Do well on standardized tests. That translates to getting into better schools and getting scholarships.”

On the qualitative side, Carlton encourages students to “be heavily engaged,” by getting to know professors, volunteering, completing internships, and networking within the classroom.

The calculation becomes: Work hard, do well, find something that separates you from others and realistically weigh the cost (benefit) of education versus the market (opportunity) available following graduation.

“Law school is so very much worthwhile,” said Vince Rampton, a shareholder at Utah-based Jones Waldo law firm.  “It’s still a very good bet.”

Rampton said that despite the state of the economy, there’s always a need for good attorneys and that the field was quick to bounce back after the recession.

“Jones Waldo had to cut back during the recession but we’re moving past that now. We are actively recruiting, have people coming in on clerkships, and have the brightest new attorneys that can be found anywhere in the state,” Rampton said.

Warr said he is careful in calculating the value of a law degree, with the average student debt from private schools reaching $125,000 and about $75,000 for public schools.

“If I feel like I’m going to get a fantastic education at a top law school, I’m willing to incur significant debt,” Warr said. “If I don’t get into those schools, I’ll be happy getting a solid education at an affordable in-state school, without the debt”

The Washington Post reported that of the 44,000 law graduates in the class of 2011, only half had full-time jobs as attorneys within nine months of graduation.

Work and preparation

Diane Ward, program manager and career counselor at the University of Utah, says she encourages students to follow their dreams, despite the risk of significant debt.

“If a student comes into my office and says it’s always been their dream to get an MBA, am I going to pop that balloon? Of course not,” Ward says.  

She listed five things she advises all students to do if they are serious about getting into graduate school or getting their dream job: Find internships, put in the time for work experience, network, create a great resume, and be educated about what schools and employers are looking for.

“If a student is able to graduate with two-three internships, they are going to be a better practitioner of the field,” Ward said. “Having been out there and doing the business makes you so much more sophisticated.”

“GPA is important, but it’s not the end-all be-all,” Ward said. “One of the greatest fears of employers is hiring someone with a great GPA and no experience at all.”

E-mail: mmellor@deseretnews.com