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Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP file
In this file photo, students walk on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. Young people are carrying a load heavier than they normally bear as they scatter from campuses, judging from an AP-mtvU poll that finds students anxious about their finances.
updated 5/19/2009 10:47:09 AM ET 2009-05-19T14:47:09

School's out, surf's up, summer beckons. Time for college students to see if they can stay afloat in the worst economy their generation has known.

Young people are carrying a load heavier than they normally bear as they scatter from campuses, judging from an AP-mtvU poll that finds students anxious about their finances, job prospects after graduation and the pressures facing their folks back home.

Josh Donahue, 23, an Oregon State University economics graduate, is living on food stamps. First in his family with a university degree, he stays with relatives and scrapes even for a menial job instead of the bank gig he'd dreamed about.

"A degree in economics," he said, "doesn't really prepare you to understand the economy very well."

To be sure, tight budgets are a rite of passage at college. Ramen noodles build character.

But in a nation that has lost more than 5.7 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, parent and student alike are swept up in the tempest. In the poll of students, nearly one in five reported that at least one parent lost a job in the last year.

Parents usually worry about their kids' finances. Now the kids are worrying about their parents'.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., systems engineering junior Adrian Solomon, 21, of Virginia Beach, Va., said his mother, who is single and raising his 16-year-old sister as well as a foster child, is "trying to support me sometimes, when I need it." At other times she's asked him for money. "I would do what I can to help her out."

Jake Lear, 21, of Warrenton, Va., a digital arts major at George Mason, worked three jobs at a time through the semester and is doing one of them full-time this summer — a resident adviser helping to look after freshmen in dorms — because he gets free housing. His parents work for a federal contractor that shrank its work force and eliminated 401(k) matching contributions. The school is in suburban northern Virginia outside Washington.

"I'm pretty much independent as far as school goes," Lear said. "Where they would normally help me out with cash here and there they don't so much any more, just because money's so tight."'

The sleep-deprived but irrepressible Buchi Akpati, 18, of Woodbridge, Va., also juggled three jobs at once through the semester — one online, another at the gym and another as a beauty consultant. Her days have unfolded like this, once she gets out of bed between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.:

"I go to class, study in between class, go to work, study at work, go to my other job, Mary Kay, do some facials, sell some products, study in between, go back to my dorm, study and eat at the same time, work online at the same time, study afterwards from like 2 to 6 a.m., then sleep, and then wake up and do the same thing."

She is majoring in "biology, pre-medicine, with a splash of Spanish" and adding two summer classes to her workload. "I never get any sleep," she said brightly. "That's the thing."

The poll surveyed students at 40 U.S. colleges, exploring financial pressures, job possibilities, their state of mind and when stress becomes depression. Among the findings on the economy:

  • 22 percent of students said they worry a lot about having enough money to get through a typical week at school, and more — fully one-third — said they worry a lot about the finances of their parents.
  • Nearly one in five changed plans this year and decided to attend graduate or professional school after college because an undergraduate degree might not be enough to get them a job. Staying in school buys time for the economy to improve and defers repayment of student loans but adds living costs and debt.
  • 11 percent of those whose parents lost a job veered away from grad school because they could not afford it. They were twice as likely to avoid grad school as those whose parents did not lose a job. Job loss in the family also made twice as many students consider dropping out — 27 percent. Overall, nearly one in five considered quitting school.
  • 32 percent said financial worries have a lot of impact on the stress they're under, up from 27 percent last spring.

Nervousness is apparent on campuses, even in the midst of post-exam relief. So, however, is resilience.

Instead of being discouraged by the 29 applications for summer internships that got no response, Larry Robertson is pumped about the one that is landing him an interview.

"I HAVE to get a job," he said. Living at home in Washington, where he devotes Fridays and other times to looking after his grandmother, he's been commuting up to four hours a day to George Mason and scrimping at every turn as he prepares for law school. He'll graduate in December with a major in sociology and a minor in anthropology.

"I don't buy clothes," Robertson said. "I don't shop. I stay at home, I don't go out. I have a very strict academic life.

"I really try to prepare enough so that I'm not stressed out with money. That's the last thing you need to be stressed out by when you're in school."

Corwin Burton, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, also on the Washington outskirts, gave up his apartment and moved back home when the tips dropped off at the bar he tends. Studying nano-engineering, he's confident the economy will rebound by the time he gets out of grad school.

"It always does," he said. "It's nowhere near bad enough to think that the country's going to explode and fail. The economy naturally cycles. I've studied enough economics to know that. It goes up, it goes back down."

In Grants Pass, Ore., Donahue wonders when it's going to go up. He regrets stretching his bachelor of science in economics over five years, thinking he'd be a financial analyst now if he'd finished school in four, before the crisis. Given the turmoil in the financial industry, however, it's questionable whether an entry job would still be there.

Major Market Indices

Sharing his $200 a month in food stamps with his aunt and uncle in lieu of rent, he's applying for work as a delivery man, a hotel clerk, a bank teller and a white-collar job in the insurance industry. He's planning on going to law school.

"Having a college degree and having to ask other people for help is not a funny thing," he said. "It's a little demoralizing."

Still, faith persists among the young in the value of an education as a career builder, and a temporary shelter from the outside world.

Lear gets the occasional "panic-inducing thought" that capitalism itself is unraveling, a scary prospect with graduation ahead of him in December. "Right now, it's the only thing to do," he said of schooling. "There's always grad school and I'm not afraid of more education."

Then there's the laser focus of Robertson, on track to become a public advocacy lawyer.

"I've made up my mind about what I'm going to do and so I'm going to do it," he states. "If I have to endure some challenges and struggle a little bit, that's fine. If it's going to take me some extra time, I want those credentials, it's really important, so I'm going to do it."

The poll was conducted April 22 to May 4 by Edison Media Research and involved interviews with 2,240 undergraduate students aged 18-24 at four-year colleges. To protect privacy, the schools where the poll was conducted are not being identified, the students who responded were not asked for their names, and people interviewed for this story were not part of the survey. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The TV network mtvU is operated by the MTV Networks division of Viacom and available at many colleges. MtvU's sponsorship of the poll is related to its mental-health campaign "Half of Us," which it runs with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to reduce suicide among young people.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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