Schools: Creativity offsets cost of college

In a mass communications class at Shenandoah University, students are told not to purchase books. Instead, they’re to use that money to pay for membership to a professional organization of their choice.

It’s one of many ways area teachers and administrators have been adapting to offer students their best chance at success after graduation.

Such efforts could save students potentially hundreds of dollars otherwise spent on textbooks, said Jennifer Spataro-Wilson, director of Career Services at Shenandoah University in Winchester, as well as give them a leg up on competition in their career fields.

“It’s definitely something that’s becoming I think more important, just in the sense of the network opportunities that are available through doing something like this,” she said. “[These organizations] could be their future employers.”

Though it won’t translate to all classes, it’s an idea non-traditional student Kathryn Davis of Front Royal can relate to.

Preparing to graduate with an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown before pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Davis said juggling tuition costs, book costs and the need for a well-paying job is a lot to deal with all at once.

“Books are just crazy expensive,” she said. Some she can sell back to the college book store for well below what she paid, but she said others can’t be returned at all. Some of her books are older copies of recently updated books, and others came with computer access codes that only she can use.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

But Davis said she would find comfort in knowing whether or not her college degrees will be worth the time and money.

She’s seen the struggle of her daughter Lyza Raymond, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Washington, who works two jobs in food service to pay rent in Arlington and support her freelancing efforts as a graphic designer.

Most of her friends are in the same situation, her mother said. They search in vain for career jobs while paying back student loans.

“Who guarantees us a job after that?” Davis wondered. “Is it worth it? Is it really worth it for me to put this money out?”

“If the colleges would be more proactive in finding these students a job … it would be worth putting the money into the loans, because then you’d know you could actually pay them back,” she said.

Area school officials have asked themselves those same types questions and adopted ways of making it easier on students.

But the effort goes both ways, said Warren County School Board member James Wells, who noticed scholarships available for graduating seniors at Skyline and Warren County high schools rarely attract the kind of interest they should be getting.

“Let me urge every parent out there to stay on top of their children,” he said. “We have a huge number of scholarships each year presented by members of the community, by organizations, anything up to and including armed services and our colleges. And in most cases, it takes a very simple application.”

“So please students, please parents, get applications, find out what scholarships are available,” he said.

At Lord Fairfax, the Workforce Solutions office still has money from an $80,000 grant for assisting unemployed or underemployed students in paying for school through the school’s On-Ramp program, said Job Placement Coordinator Catherine Kelley.

Program participants go through a credentialing program to become certified within four to six weeks for specific work of their choice, and afterward Kelley helps them find employment.

Internships are an important tool administrators recommend for helping students network with potential employers and use their skills on the job, but Mary Morsch, director of the Office of Career and Academic Planning at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said they aren’t always a possibility for students if they come at the expense of paid summer work.

“Either way the student comes out ahead having had that kind of experience,” Morsch said. “[But] we’re really trying to encourage employers to pay students for their work.”

Her office has long helped students find full time work after college.

Last fall, the university hosted more than 300 students at a career event that taught resume preparation. The school’s practice interview program prepares students for questions they might encounter from potential employers. Its Job Search 101 series offers advice on job searching and networking and was so well received that the school has made it a staple each year.

“I know that there’s positions out there,” said Morsch, who receives thousands of job searches from employers every year.

The more focused and targeted a student’s job search is, the easier time they’ll have, Morsch said. But she warned that students shouldn’t be so particular about a position that they’re unwilling to consider their options.

“The biggest issue for college students is figuring out what they want to do,” she said. Otherwise, it’s really tough, “’cause you don’t even know where to begin.”

But persistence can be a student’s best tool in helping track down leads and find the job that’s right for them.

Posting a resume online and waiting for a response, she said, “That’s not going to get the job done.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com