I've been spending every Wednesday for the last few weeks at a Minnesota college or university, asking students about their economic outlook. This week, I stopped at Winona State University, the first four-year institution on the tour. For the most part, the students are (a) less chatty than their counterparts (b) just as optimistic about their chances to succeed in an "uncertain" economy and (c) confident that things will get better eventually. At the same time, however, I found graduating seniors to be filled with plenty of anxiety about their lives after May graduation, more anxious than any of the other schools I've been at. In a way, a typical four-year student has been more sheltered from the economy than the typical student at a two-year school.
This anxiousness about the unknown economic world is heightened by concerns about the economic future of parents. If a parent loses a job, some students told me, the students' education and economic future is suddenly imperiled.
As I continue the tour, I'm becoming more fascinated with the notion that the people I'm talking to are more optimistic about themselves than they are about the rest of the economy, which is generally made up of other people who feel more confident about the people they know (themselves) than the people they don't (the rest of the economy).
Confidence. That's a word we've heard thousands of times in recent months, but where does it come from? I think the confidence-in-myself-less-confidence-in-the-rest-of-the-economy answers to this question I've asked provide a clue. It's what we know vs. what we don't know, and on the bigger question of the economy, all we know is often what we're told.
Thus, it's becoming more obvious, we in the news business need to think some more about what we're conveying when talking about the economy. We might be telling a piece of the puzzle, but are we telling it in the right context and in a way that is useful? I don't have these answers yet. Perhaps you do.
Incidentally, be sure to listen to Wednesday's Midmorning hour in which the economic future of graduating seniors was discussed. It was, I think, a good example of covering an economic issue in a fairly productive way, outlining those extra steps that graduating students can take to get a job.
Now, one other distinction I'm finding. A lot of students are choosing their careers, not because of the money, but because they want to do something that helps someone else. I'll explore that more in future stops.
Here are some of the people I met at Winona State University on Wednesday:
Randy Fish, Winona
Mass Communications major (Junior)
"We're obviously in a slump right now. I see it bounding back; it's just going to take some time. The economy naturally goes up and down but over the past several years we've been on a steady increase, so with this decline people started freaking out because they weren't use to it. But the economy of our country is such that it bounds back. It kinds of hurts now, but..."
Fish is a sergeant in the National Guard. He's been deployed to Kosovo and then Iraq and has decided his original intention to be a paramedic is no longer for him. He transferred to Winona State from Century College and relies on the GI Bill, state tuition reimbursement, and the Minnesota GI Bill to pay for things.
He also works part-time as a bartender and says not everyone is living in fear of a declining economy. "People from different companies aren't worried about losing their job at all. But other people don't know what's happening. You hear about certain companies that are growing, others that are shrinking," he says.
He's planning to be a federal agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). "I don't sit up at night and wonder what I'm going to be doing in five years. I can always re-enlist in the Army.
Caroline Nettestad - Alexandria
Public relations and social work (Senior)
"It is panic, panic, panic, panic, panic. A graduating senior from a few years ago, you name it, it was on her resume. She went up to the cities and got a really good job and now she's worried about losing it. If she can't get a good job, what chance do I have? This economy is really scary. It's February and I'm graduating in May; I'm very pessimistic right now. I don't think we've hit the worst yet but I think the worst will be in the next few months and then it'll turn around."
Caroline says she has a passion for both social work and public relations. Winona State offers both programs.
"My family's done foster care for some time so I would wake up some days and have three new siblings for that day or the week or years. That's where my communication (interest) comes from; I live hearing about other people's stories," she said.
She wants to marry social work and communications. She was a nursing assistant through high school, "but I couldn't do the whole blood thing." The perfect job: A communications director at a hospital, preferably in Douglas County.
He anxiety over her post-Winona life is heightened by the finances it took to graduate in three years. "I have student loans up the wazoo," she said. "I would cry if I had to sit down and tally them all up." Two travel study trips -- one to Egypt where she learned that Americans don't get enough international news -- added to the total. "We're not ignorant by choice, we're ignorant by the media we're provided with," she said.
She says she's willing to wait tables, accept unpaid internships, go back to being a nursing assistant for awhile until her ideal job presents itself. "As long as I'm getting some experience, I'm willing to do it for free."
"The economy is bleak. I'm personally more optimistic. It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimism will help. I'm not quite ready to accept defeat. I'm young. I can find something."
Rachel says it's frightening that she doesn't have a better answer for the "what are you going to do?" question she gets asked more often as graduation approaches in May.
She says she's "kind artsyish" and that's what attracts her to public relations where she says she can work on projects, write, and be creative. But she's also planning to travel. "The French minor encourages me," she said. So she may head to France to be an au pair.
Among she and her friends, the subject of the economy rarely comes up. "No one really talks about it. We all know it's a challenge," she said..
Jack Linehan - Taylors Falls
Political Science and Economics with an emphasis on Middle Eastern Studies (Freshman)
"(The economy) comes up every 15 minutes. We're constantly talking about how to make tuition more affordable and improve academic quality while doing so."
Linehan is planning for a job in government or a non-profit and he figures an economic background will help the "financial side of things." He's got a good start with an election to the Student Senate at Winona State. His economy for the next four years, however, consists of how much it'll cost to get his education.
"If we look at some of the cuts the university faces, we could be looking at a 17 percent tuition increase. I come from a low-income house," he says, rattling off a list of scholarships and grants that reduced his $16,000 a year tuition. "I'll come out with debt but thankfully it's nowhere near what some students are coming out with." But, he says, if he becomes a non-profit administrator, there won't be a big income to pay it back.
He'll be the first man on his father's side, he says, to get a college education. "My mom was a first-generation college student as well and she's a hairdresser now. She has a history degree, so it didn't pay off quite the way she thought it would. But she loves what she does and I see what she does and how she really appreciates what she does and how I, too, could do something for people that isn't really making as much money as I could. But that's not what really concerns me. I really want to help others more," he said.
Ian Galchutt - North St. Paul
Political Science (Junior)
Ian plans on a life in politics. He's a member of the Student Senate and is trying to defend higher education against budget cuts.
"Eighty percent of the graduates of MnSCU institutions stay in the state," he says. "They contribute to the economy, are good members of society and higher education is what stabilizes what Minnesota."
He rattles off a list of challenges to his generation. "For me and people my age, we're graduating with an average $20,000 of debt from a MNSCU education. It makes it incredibly difficult for people our age to buy a house or a car. You want to buy a house, find a job, and start a family," he said.
When asked whether he thinks his generation will have a better life than its parents, however, he says "I think so," seeming to apologize for being "a naturally optimistic person."
February 11 - Minnesota West Community and Technical College (Worthington)
February 18 - Lake Superior College (Duluth)
February 25 - Minnesota State University Moorhead (Moorhead)
A portion of a huge mural in WSU's administration building document's Winona's economic past.
Will you be coming to Bemidji State University or NW Technical College in Bemidji?
Technical Note: The Caroline Nettestad audio link leads to the Randy Fish audio clip. I think the interviews on campus are great. I really enjoy hearing what students think. I know Caroline and most of the WSU students that talked with you, and I'd like to hear Caroline's audio.Tthanks for a great, informative, real "slice of life" blog Bob.