Micah Minchow had big plans for college academics, palm trees and sun at a University of California school.
"I wanted to be able to have that status of going to a really high ranking, top 40 school, and I thought that would help me in life," said the Brighton High senior, who's spent the last four years taking advanced classes and earning high marks.
Minchow, however, didn't count on at least one thing: a recession that dragged down the finances of families in Utah and across the nation, including his.
"In reality, once my parents said, 'Hey look, we can't pay as much as we thought we would be able to for college,' that kind of changed my outlook," he said. Minchow now plans to attend a community college in California, earn residency in that state, and then transfer to the school of his dreams. "It's a lot better to go the cheaper route, figure out my generals, instead of going straight into a four-year university."
Like Minchow, thousands of Utah high school seniors will graduate this month, crossing stages, grabbing diplomas and, as always, flipping the tassels on their mortarboard hats. But this year's graduating class also has this distinction they're the first to have spent their entire high school careers in this economic downturn.
It's a situation that's altered their high school experiences, changed their attitudes about money and likely will have a long-lasting impact on how they live their lives.
Their mindsets are not the same as those of students who graduated even five years ago.
"I think that it's probably made them think more and not be so complacent and take things for granted economically," said James Hodges, Minchow's Advanced Placement politics teacher at Brighton.
Hodges has been teaching for more than 15 years and said this group of kids seems to be thinking much more than any group he's seen before about how the decisions they make now will affect their financial futures.
Taking it to heart • Over the past four years, teens have watched parents lose jobs, banks foreclose on neighbors' homes and older siblings graduate from college jobless.
It's changed the way they look at the world.
"This has just taught me that it's important to think toward the future, and you need to have a financial safety net just in case," said senior John Boulanger of Brighton. "With all the foreclosures and things like that, it just puts it in perspective how easily everything is lost, and it's important that you save for the future so your life doesn't crumble."
In nearby West Jordan, students in a concurrent enrollment financial literacy class at Copper Hills High expressed similar sentiments.
"The recession itself kind of threw back in the face of everyone that it's not OK to be insecure financially and try to live a life that essentially isn't yours," said Copper Hills senior Shelby Harris. "It's better to live what may seem to be a lower economic life and have security."
Such opinions can sometimes sound more like what one might expect to hear, instead, from the students' great-grandparents.
"Nowadays, the dollar bill doesn't go as far as it used to, and so you got to be careful where you put your money," warned Copper Hills senior Craig Goff, 18.
It's more than just talk. A 2011 Charles Schwab survey found that 77 percent of 16- to-18-year-olds considered themselves "super savers" as opposed to "big spenders." That survey also found less spending among teens in 2011 than four years earlier.
But all this might not be bad for teens, said Don Peck, author of Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed our Futures and What We Can Do About It.
He said if teens who grew up during the Great Depression are any indication, this generation might benefit from what they learn during this economic low-time. The generation that grew up during the Great Depression, he noted, became known as the Greatest Generation.
"Because more adolescents in the Depression were pampered less and counted on for more," Peck said, "they seemed to be particularly effective, forward-thinking, family-oriented adults throughout their lives, able to delay self gratification, particularly solicitous of family members, and, in fact, really very good citizens."
A different education • Those lessons, however, have come at a cost.
In many ways, this year's graduating seniors had a different high school experience than past classes.
Mekenna Wilson, a Copper Hills senior, cut back her involvement in clubs and activities to save her family money on fees. Despite having a college degree, her dad has been out of work for two years after a layoff, she said.
"I'm less involved than I would like to be," Wilson said, adding that her family's situation has shown her just how tough getting a job can be.
The dreary economy has also inspired students to cram their schedules with concurrent enrollment classes, which allow them to earn college credit while still in high school, potentially saving them money in the long run.
"I've saved thousands of dollars in taking concurrent enrollment classes here," said Amy Pierce, a Copper Hills senior. "I wouldn't have done that probably without the recession and people pushing me."
Still, some students took on jobs to save for college and to help pay for their needs and wants. Still, some students took on jobs to save for college and to help pay for their needs and wants. According to the Charles Schwab survey, 67 percent of teens said they got their money from having jobs in 2011, compared with 53 percent in 2007.
Davit Sargsian, a Brighton senior, said he's been working since 10th grade to pay for gas money as well as lunch and Advanced Placement tests.
Brighton senior Landon Smith said he's worked every summer during high school and managed to save nearly all of what he's earned. "I just figured I better start saving now because I'm going to need it. I couldn't take the summer job so I could have spending money. I took it so I would have money for the future," Smith said.
And in many cases, the downturn has changed seniors' plans for the future. It's prompted students to think twice not only about where they'll go to college, but also about their career plans.
Of relatively recent college graduates surveyed by Rutgers' John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development earlier this year, 37 percent said if they could have done something differently in order to be more successful, they would have selected their majors more carefully.
"I really like history, but I'm like, what am I going to do if I major in history?" said Shawnee Hullinger, a Copper Hills senior. She's planning to go to Salt Lake Community College in the fall, and is undecided on a major.
Optimism for the future • Despite the hard lessons, the changed plans, the cutting back, this year's graduating seniors are, perhaps surprisingly, grateful for what they have and optimistic about the future.
"I sort of feel fortunate for living my whole high school career in this recession because that means that I just have nowhere really to go but up," said Brighton senior Steven Ethington.
They don't necessarily have the same expectations for the future that their parents did.
They hope to get jobs but realize that even with a college degree, that's not guaranteed. They don't know if they'll ever make as much money as their parents. Home ownership is no longer necessarily something to shoot for.
"I think it's fine if you can afford it," said Brighton senior Wesley Larson of home ownership, "but kind of the idea that every person should own their own house is kind of a relic of the 1950s, to be honest. ... It's not the safe investment that it used to be, if it ever really was."
Their education over the past four years has included lessons past graduates didn't find in their textbooks.
"I think we're more prepared because we have their mistakes or stories, understanding what they did wrong," Sargsian said.
Plus, they have faith that, ultimately, the economy will recover.
Pierce said she's optimistic for the future, especially considering everything she's learned in this downturn.
"There's a difference between being pessimistic and being prepared," Pierce said. "I look forward to the future, and I'm excited to go about it, but I'm also prepared for when things do go wrong."
This year's high school grads sound off about downturn
This year's high school graduates are the first to have spent all their high school years in this economic downturn. The Tribune spoke with two groups of seniors a financial literacy class at Copper Hills High in West Jordan and an Advanced Placement politics class at Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights to get their thoughts on how the downturn affected their high school years, and what they've taken away from it.
"This just shows how fragile the reality of this situation really can be."
Steven Ethington | Brighton
"I've known a lot of people personally close to me that have gone to school after high school and gotten degrees but then they can't find a job after."
Jordan Campagna | Brighton
"With the recession it just means that my parents have less money going into savings and because of that, less money for college funds for us, so it does definitely make it harder. It means that I'm staying in-state, going to a local college."
Landon Smith | Brighton
"It kind of affects what career you're going to choose in the future because certain careers you understand that they're not going to pay as much, you won't have as many opportunities with them."
Arman Oganov | Brighton
"It's kind of made me tone down my expectations. For a long time, I expected to go to some big Ivy League school back east and become some high-paying somebody. But first of all, I think that seeing my own family and the financial difficulties we've faced, I've seen that having all that money and going to those big schools really doesn't matter and that I'd rather just go somewhere in-state and do something that I like."
Shelby Harris | Copper Hills
"We know that we can't just expect things to fall into place. It's left up to us to determine our fateâ¦Things aren't just going to happen for us."
Ashton Vandermyde | Itineris Early College High
"I think people's choice of careers have become a little more practical."
Elijah Celeste | Copper Hills
"The economy can still get worse from here, and it's really important to save money for a rainy day for when things get worse and there's not a lot that you can do about it."
Mekenna Wilson | Copper Hills
"I'm optimistic because the economy is a cycle. It has to get better someday, and it will get better."
Carla Valdez | Copper Hills