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Post-graduation prospects limited for rural teens

by John Dubosky

As summer rolls on in central Pennsylvania, recent local high school graduates are making the famous rite of passage into the enigmatic “real world.” But opportunities are not equally accessible to all graduates.

Many rural teens are likely to find their economic prospects limited and opt to forgo postsecondary education, instead joining the workforce or the military.

While State College Area High School will send 85 percent of its graduating seniors to postsecondary education―most commonly Penn State, Lock Haven University and the South Hills School of Business and Technology―the more rural Penns Valley Area High School will send only about 65 percent of its seniors to college. 

The numbers for Bellefonte Area and Bald Eagle Area high schools are much closer to Penns Valley than to State College.

“About 50 to 60 percent of our students go off to schooling,” said Bald Eagle guidance counselor Karen Morse. “That’s split between two- and four-year schools.”

“A lot of our families just expect that you will go on to higher learning,” State College guidance counselor Katie Scalise said. “There’s no question. You’re not going to the military. You’re not going to work after you graduate. You’re not getting married. You grow up and you’re expected to go to college.”

Such an expectation may stem from the understanding that better economic prospects await college graduates.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, men with high school diplomas earned an average of $31,715 in 2006. Women in the same category made $20,650. With a bachelor’s degree, the numbers rise to $55,446 and $36,875, respectively.

While the vast majority of State College Borough residents between the ages of 18 and 24 have attended college, only about 36 percent of Centre County residents 25 or older have attained a bachelor’s degree, according to the Census Bureau.

Penns Valley guidance counselor Bill Bock said 35 of this year’s 138 graduates will enter the workforce or the military.

“The kinds of jobs they can get really do depend on what’s available,” said Penn State associate professor of rural sociology and demography Diane McLaughlin. “It’s the standard kind of jobs you would expect: retail sales, jobs in food service―things that don’t pay very much.”

With a minimum wage of $7.15 per hour and many employers refusing to provide more than 35 hours of work a week, things can be tricky for young people.

Penns Valley graduate Bertis Cummins left a part-time job at Wegman’s to assume a full-time position at Nittany Office Equipment in State College.

“I’m working 40 hours a week plus overtime,” Cummins said. “It took me a couple of weeks to find a job.”

High-priority occupations in the region include sales representatives; machinists; mechanical drafters; and shipping, receiving and traffic clerks, according to Pa. CareerLink.

“You used to be able to work in factories. You used to be able to work in coal mines without even having a high school degree,” said Penn State agricultural economics and rural sociology professor Stephan Goetz. “Those jobs are gone, and they’re most likely not coming back. I think the engine of growth certainly is Penn State here, especially now that Corning and some of these other places have left.”

And there’s always the military option for rural teens. An estimated 5 to 7 percent of high school graduates from Centre County are entering the armed services, principally the Army.

“They are usually working-class high school grads who want to go to college but really can’t afford it,” said State College–based Army recruiter Vitautas Bucevicius.

Roughly 20 percent of Centre County’s Army recruits are signed up before they graduate from high school.

Some State High graduates also choose the military option, but not to the exclusion of education.

“State High gets a lot of ROTC,” Bucevicius said. “The active duty come from a lot of the other schools, like Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Penns Valley.”

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps allows college students to go to school for free in exchange for military service after graduation.  

The incentives of military service are attractive to many young people.     

“For all I know, I could still be working at Pizza Hut,” said Penns Valley graduate Shayne Bierly, a future Marine.

Many area young people are also drawn to technical colleges, which provide training that students can take to the bank.

According to Bock, there is a lack of skilled laborers in Centre County and, therefore, an abundance of trade job openings.

The Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology provides technical training to high school students and adults. The institute boasts a 92 percent placement rate for 2008 graduates. 

An estimated 1,100 adults have gone through the institute this year, said Todd Taylor, director of adult and postsecondary education at the institute.

There are several organizations that help Centre County graduates with disabilities transition into the workforce. One such organization in State College is Skills of Central Pennsylvania. 

“We work with high school kids while they’re still in high school,” explained Skills President and CEO David Rice. We do transitional programming with them, and they will move from high school into the work world. Most will move to our adult training facility.

The programs train folks with disabilities to do jobs that are available throughout the county.

“It may be working at a grocery store as a grocer or as a bagger, or in a fast food restaurant,” Rice said. “It depends on the individual, what his or her interests are and what his or her skill level is.

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