As Hudson Valley high school seniors step across auditorium stages and into new lives this month, there's one thing that dominates their minds in a post-recession world: money.

Although there's certainly no lack of big dreaming and glass-half-full optimism among today's graduates, they are also well-schooled in the realities of pricey college tuitions and a difficult job market.

After all, those realities are hard to ignore. According to reports released in May and June by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, only 16 percent of recession-era graduates with just a high school diploma have full-time jobs.

Those who head to college are faring better -- with a 51 percent full-time employment rate -- but 60 percent had an average of $20,000 in loan debt.

"We all agree that money is the biggest concern in the college process today," said Betsy Sherwood, a guidance counselor at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg.

Nevertheless, as high school seniors flip their tassels at June graduations, their mentors and parents also want them to hold on to that All-American ideal: Work hard and you can make it.

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"We try to make sure they're aware of the trends," Sherwood said. "But kids should follow their dreams."

Newsday spoke with some seniors about their plans for higher learning and beyond and how today's economy played a role in their college decisions.

The future orthodontist

Kristen Tenore, the co-president of the 2012 senior class at Suffern High School and Rockland BOCES, flashed a smile as she described a negotiation process with her parents about what college to attend and how to pay for the decade of schooling it will take her to become an orthodontist.

With the Class of 2012, local guidance counselors say they saw more parents sit down and weigh what they can afford, with some saying no to their kids' top college choices.

"You have more middle-class families who are now really saying, 'You know, we need to look at our finances and what we thought we could afford,'" Yonkers Middle High School guidance counselor Roselyn Kendrick-Jones said.

Though Tenore's No. 1 pick for undergraduate school was New York University, she compromised with her parents and will study biology next year at Siena College.

Tenore plans to pay for graduate school herself, so her parents wanted to fund her first four years.

"My father is very concerned about me paying for myself," Tenore said. "The whole negotiation was about finding the cheapest place to go, so that they could afford it."

Savvy students like Tenore are also veering their college majors toward degrees in hot fields -- such as health care or engineering -- as well as doubling up on options to make themselves more marketable.

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Aspiring electrical engineer

Ross Chumsky, 18, always loved math. He also loved growing up exploring technical ideas with his dad, who is an electrical engineer. So the Rye High School senior's decision to follow in his father's footsteps is not about being practical or finding a job. "It's what I like," he said.

Chumsky chose Lafayette College the same way. The minute he visited the school in Easton, Pa., he knew. "It's the campus," he said. "I really like it there."

Tuition will cost more than $50,000 a year. But his mother, Barbara, said that the family -- including Ross' grandparents -- has been saving for this moment "since he was born." She said she is carrying out a family tradition that makes her so emotional that just talking about it made her teary and hug her son.

"My parents said, 'Go to the best college you can and don't worry about it,'" she said as her voice broke. "So he has parents that said, 'Go to the best college and don't worry about it.'"

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Mechanical engineering major

Matthew Seward III, a senior at Yonkers Middle High School, considered becoming a lawyer and a journalist. Instead, he will major in mechanical engineering at Manhattan College.

"A lot of the things that I wanted to do . . . people were a having hard time finding jobs in those fields," Seward said.

When he and his friends are talking about what they're doing next year, money is always the hot topic, Seward said. His friends are excited about their college choices, but they also talk about the how they're going to pay for everything.

"It's just me and my mom, really," Seward said.

He plans to live at home, and work two on-campus jobs while he studies.

Seward chose the engineering field so he can be confident that he'll land a job when he graduates college.

"I wanted something that would give me a good salary and where I would have a job," Seward said.

Graphic design as a career

Rockland BOCES graphics design teacher Patrick Mitrione said he encourages his students to research all the career options that could stem from one's degree.

"We're trying to get that message to students, to try to work as hard and be as marketable as possible," Tappan Zee guidance counselor Randy Altman said.

One of Mitrione's star students -- Tyler Hayes, a soft-spoken senior at Nanuet Senior High School -- got the marketability message. Hayes will study visual media at the College of Westchester, where he'll also school himself in graphic design and video and three-dimensional art.

Upon graduation, Hayes says he'll have career options on the East Coast -- in architecture or commercial graphic design -- and on the West Coast -- in video and gaming.

"I thought that this field would provide a lot of experience to be able to move out West or to apply for jobs here," Hayes said.

The undecided

Given the tough economy, Morgan Howells, 18, said the cost of tuition "kind of affected" her choice for a college. But because she's not sure what she wants to do when she graduates, she needed a school that could offer options.

She also had already made up her mind about her dream experience: The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"I was looking for a good program, and this one had it," Howells said. It was the only school she applied to.

Tuition will run close to $48,000 a year, and the family will manage if everyone keeps working and saving -- including William and Mary's newest student from Rye High School. Howell works after school as a lifeguard.

"We saved some and we're going to save some more," said her mom, Lisa Howells.

With's Betty Ming Liu