The day before graduation, two classmates sat at a coffee shop on the edge of campus and contemplated their futures.
Krystalyn Weaver is heading to pharmacy school. Her friend Rachael Wise dreams of working as a university admissions counselor. But their school, the University of Toledo, is in a hiring freeze, Ms. Wise says, and others in Ohio have hundreds of applications for each available spot.
Ms. Wise already has been accepted to a UT graduate program and is waiting to hear from other programs. She'll bite at the best offer - either a paycheck or more years of schooling.
"I was talking to a friend the other day about how we imagined graduating with dream jobs in New York. And now we don't even know what we're going to do," she said. "I'm applying for internships. College graduates 10 years ago weren't doing that."
Ms. Weaver, former UT student body president, says she knows classmates with no prospects and of intense competitions for internships and regular jobs.
The job market is so bad that legions of 20-somethings are choosing school instead of the harsh reality of seeking employment.
A study released Sunday from the Brookings Institution places the Toledo metro area at the top of that higher education, stay-in-school trend - with 60 percent of area 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled in higher education as of 2008.
That was the highest percentage of any of the nation's 100 largest metro areas, according to the study. And it compares to just 45 percent in 2000.
The study used the latest U.S. Census figures available and considers the Toledo metro area to include Lucas, Fulton, Ottawa, and Wood counties.
It's impossible to pinpoint the exact reason for the surge, but experts interviewed by The Blade say the dismal job market in the metro area is a driving force.
"There was this decline in manufacturing and the automotive industry, and it's convinced young people in the region that going to college is the most important thing they can do," said Alan Berube, one of the authors of the study. "But the question is after these people graduate, can you keep them around in the region so that Toledo can create its own economic future?"
Others, such as Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and UT officials, say increased incentives to attend college, such as expanded scholarship opportunities, are pushing up enrollment.
"The continual message to young people - that without a college degree it diminishes your ability to have the kind of life you want - has had an effect," said Larry Burns, UT's vice president for external affairs. "It's not like a generation ago when there were good, solid factory jobs available to high school graduates."
The apparent go-to-school frenzy could be good or bad news, depending on your perspective.
It could be a reflection of intensified interest in area universities increasing their offerings and the increasing size and scope of their programs, such as with the merger this decade of the University of Toledo and the former Medical College of Ohio.
It also could represent, more purely, a new era of education and of hope for increasing the relatively low percentage of Toledo-area adults over 24 with bachelor's degrees. That figure stood at 23 percent in 2008 - the 88th-lowest of the 100 metro areas, according to the study.
On the negative side, young people could be seeking degrees merely to escape the current Toledo economy and are planning to leave the area and take their degrees with them.
Some sobering, even depressing, economic statistics from the same study show falling income this decade in the Toledo metro area.
From 2000-2008, median household annual income fell to $44,548 from $51,998, or by 14.3 percent. That was the third-largest rate of decline of the 100 largest metro areas.
The average median hourly pay also fell to $17.14 from $18.64, or by 8 percent. That was the fourth-biggest rate of decline.
With UT, Bowling Green State University, Owens Community College, Davis College, and other higher education institutions, metro Toledo increasingly has the facilities and programs to accommodate students.
Enrollments are increasing. For example, UT had 4,000 freshmen enrolled last year, compared to 3,000 in 2006, said Mr. Burns, the UT official. Davis College in Toledo, which offers two-year degrees in business, graphic design, and other hands-on skills, has seen its student body grow to 500 from 420 two years ago.
Key for Toledo's economic future is to have jobs ready and waiting for future graduates when they finish their degrees, said Mr. Bell, other local government officials and business, and higher-education leaders.
It's a familiar mantra in a region that has struggled the past several decades to capitalize on fresh ideas for growing new industries.
Mr. Bell and others say creating brand-new companies through partnerships with local universities is important.
An example of such a company is Xunlight, which was grown in UT labs and is trying to build on the success of solar manufacturing in the Toledo area, Mr. Burns said.
"We have a very active incubator process. It really gets at what we need to do, not only for the students to stay in college and graduate, but also for them to stay here," Mr. Burns said.
Mr. Bell said Toledo fell behind in capitalizing on certain changing markets and industries and had to play catch-up. He said Toledo hasn't "leveraged its resources" in the same effective way as some other areas. Those resources include the port and the airport. He said the airport, if properly marketed, could become a cargo delivery jumping-off point for a three or four-state area.
"Every city has a challenge. Figure out how to work around it. If it costs us $10 million to create $50 million in growth, it behooves us to do that," the mayor said.
The study's authors say examining metro areas provides a window into what's happening in America. The social and economic trends show up first in the largest metro areas, said Mr. Berube, one of the authors.
The report, called "State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation," previews the 2010 Census and highlights five major demographic trends.
The study shows that Toledo, as a Rust Belt city, has a lot in common with other cities that are not necessarily in the same geographic region of the country, Mr. Berube said.
Wichita and Memphis, for example, suffer from a lot of the same issues of falling family income and rising unemployment, he said.
He said at least some of the change has to come from the federal government and that Toledo and other Rust Belt cities should join forces with cities in other regions that have similar issues. It would be a different lobbying strategy, Mr. Berube said.
"It isn't up to Toledo alone. One of the reasons Toledo is where it is today is as a nation we have not had vision or strategy for our manufacturing sector," he said. "We figured, 'Oh, the market will just work this out.'•"
At Maxwell's Brew coffee house on Bancroft Street, the classmates said they felt luckier than others who have few prospects.
Ms. Weaver, who starts in UT's pharmacy school this year, said she remembers when drug store chains paid big bonuses to students.
She then told a story about two pharmacy interns who this year competed for one available job at the company where they worked. They had to give presentations about why they should be hired.
"It got pretty cut throat," she said. "One was asking the other what was in her presentation."
Ms. Wise, who wants to work for a university admissions department, starts work at J Alexander's restaurant this week, a couple days after graduation.
"In the college of business, people will do anything for a job," said Ms. Wise, who's the first in her family to graduate from college.
"It was drilled into me to do something that would make me happy."
Contact Christopher D.