Union Democrat staff

Graduation season is here.

Nearly 200 Columbia College students received diplomas early this month, and in the next two weeks more that 1,000 eighth-graders and high school seniors will move on.

Mountain Oaks Charter School in San Andreas will begin the festivities this weekend, graduating its eighth-graders on Friday and its seniors on Saturday. Then, every day next week, hundreds more Tuolumne and Calaveras county grads will follow.

Sonora High confers diplomas on Thursday, June 4. Summerville and Bret Harte grads will celebrate the next night. Sonora Elementary and Twain Harte Middle schools will hold 2009's final graduation exercises on June 11.

It is a season of joy, accomplishment, pride and, typically, great excitement about what is to come. Mortarboards will fly, hugs and high-fives will be exchanged and speakers will alternatively encourage and caution graduates about the world that awaits them.

That world, alas, has changed dramatically since the Class of 2008 left school.

No longer do recruiters shower college grads with job offers and no longer do "family-wage" jobs, such as those in the past offered by local lumber mills, await those coming out of high school.

The recession has dimmed the outlook for this year's graduates. Hiring of those with four-year degrees, according to one survey, is down 22 percent this year. In lieu of jobs, many are accepting no- or low-pay internships or moving back in with their parents while they look for a way to make a living on their own.

Studies have shown that four-year college grads, on average, earn nearly $1 million more over their careers than those with only high school diplomas. But given the rapidly rising costs of higher education and the current paucity of jobs, is college becoming a luxury?

Dave Urquhart, principal at Summerville High, said between 25 and 30 percent of the school's graduating class of more than 120 were accepted by four-year colleges. But only about 20 percent will enroll.

On the plus side, about 60 percent of Summerville's grads will study at Columbia College or a another two-year school. Add those who opt for trade or technical schools, or enlist in the military, and few will directly enter the ailing job market.

The silver lining for most local graduates is they still have time to chart a course through today's choppy economic waters.

Columbia grads can transfer to a four-year school (about a third do), including campuses in the University of California or the state college systems. Or, with skills gained at one of the school's many vocational programs - automotive, fire science, welding, child development, computer science and more - they can enter the job market with an edge.

Such offerings, as well as bargain tuition, make Columbia College an attractive alternative to four-year schools. Enrollment at the college grew by 10 percent last year, said Columbia President Joan Smith.

But, she conceded, a degree hardly guarantees a job. "We're feeling the pinch like everybody else," Smith said. "Our students will eventually get jobs; they'll just have to work harder at it."

"Working harder" includes focusing on a career, taking classes or enrolling in programs that will bring that goal closer and making contact with those in the field. If that career happens to be engineering, accounting, health or another endeavor where demand is expected to grow, all the better.

High school students going on to junior college will have a couple of years to plot strategy. Graduating eighth-graders will have four to six years to zero in. And, in that time, we all hope, the economy just might improve.

In the meantime, advises Columbia's Smith, "persistence" is the key to employment.

But before you begin - or continue - persisting, grads, throw those mortarboards high and enjoy every hug and high-five you get on commencement night. You've earned it.