With the cost of college going up and the jobs to go along with that four-year degree far from certainty, this year's high school seniors are increasingly looking at other options for education after they graduate.
Whether it's community college, a tech school or even time off to travel and figure out what career they want to pursue, there's no longer one right path for students leaving high school.
"We had a trend there where it was very much college-driven and the tech colleges took a back seat," said Bellingham High School Principal Jeff Vaughn. "But I see (tech schools) really rising up and offering more programs."
The increasing cost of college, the slow economy and the growing availability of career-training programs are factors why more students are turning to vocational training in high school and beyond, said James Everett, Meridian High School principal and director of career and technical education for the Meridian district.
Nearly 75 high school juniors and seniors from Whatcom County take classes at Northwest Career & Technical Academy, which offers vocational programs in medical, dental, finance and other fields. Though the academy's main location is in Skagit County, it has a satellite at Meridian High School, which offers engineering, construction and welding programs.
"The ability to come in and get real industry training for something they have an interest in is fantastic," Everett said. "What they're looking at is, 'Can I position myself to go into this program at BTC or this apprenticeship?' It broadens their horizons and makes them much more aware of what's out there."
The career and technical academy has grown since it opened three years ago, said Dean of Students Lynette Brower. It started with seven programs and next year will have 12. She said it has been a great way to get students who might not be interested in traditional high school classes - English, history or math - engaged in their learning and staying in school until graduation.
"I look at it as they're able to see some relevance to their learning," Brower said.
For Meridian senior Sam Adams, taking the tech path is a mix of practicality and passion. He showed up at 7 a.m. every day to take part in the engineering academy at the school and found he really enjoyed it. He plans to attend Bellingham's Washington Engineering Institute after graduating and has already lined up a summer internship with Whatcom County Public Works Department.
"If you can get the two-year degree and get hands-on experience at the same time, that's what's getting people the job; that's what's helping," Adams said.
He said a lot of his friends are going the two-year route, with plans to study nursing and engineering.
"The need we have for engineers and doctors, that's not going away," he said. "That drive that you know you can get a job from it has pushed my grade that much harder."
Advisers and the outreach coordinator at Whatcom Community College are seeing incoming students who are much more mindful about planning their education, said spokeswoman Mary Vermillion. Students are asking for degree plans to get an idea of how much programs cost, how long they will take, and what their career and transfer options are after they graduate.
"Students are looking at career choices that offer job security," Vermillion said, noting that nursing, computer information security and business certificates are popular options. "And they're seeing the professional and technical programs as a good option for that."
Students also are utilizing their time in high school to knock out college credits where they can. Running Start classes are an increasingly popular option for high school students to take college classes without paying college tuition.
More students are taking Advanced Placement classes that can earn them college credit, and classes at Northwest Career & Technical Academy earn college credit as well.
"With the cost of tuition going up and up and up, we're looking for ways to still get kids in the college track and not be so debt-ridden when they come out that it's not worth going," Vaughn said.
Despite rising college costs, Vaughn said students he has talked to are looking forward to their options after high school.
"They're more optimistic than they were just a few years back," he said. "They see the possibilities are greater than they were just a few years ago, and they're very excited."
Reach ZOE FRALEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 756-2803.