Recent college graduates face educational second thoughts

Posted: May 11, 2012

College graduates encountering today's tough job market often wish they could hit the rewind button, a new study from Rutgers University finds.

Maybe then, they wouldn't face a situation in which four graduates in 10 get first jobs that don't use their degrees and work at low salaries barely covering their student-loan payments. Maybe then, more than half would have full-time jobs.

According to the Rutgers study, released Wednesday, only one in two college graduates who earned diplomas between 2006 and 2011 now has a full-time job, and of those, four in 10 work in jobs that don't even require four-year degrees. The money they earn in those jobs makes it hard to pay off median undergraduate debt of $20,000.

The conclusions buttress those of The Inquirer's series examining the job challenges and aspirations of people in their 20s.

Even though young people tend to be optimistic, the report describes a pervasive sense of pessimism, with just over half the graduates surveyed expecting to be more successful than their parents. They think they are less prepared to enter the job market than the previous generation, and a third reject the American truism that people who work hard can get ahead.

"Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people," was the selection 32 percent made when asked their views of the future.

So it's no wonder they wish they had been more careful about selecting majors. On a purely practical level, they wish they had taken more computer and technology courses. Given a second chance, they would have focused on landing internships and started looking for work much earlier.

Instead, they get to their senior year in college, and "they have that 'aha' moment," said public-policy professor Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers and co-author of the study "Chasing the American Dream: Recent College Graduates and the Great Recession."

As seniors, Van Horn said, they may rush, belatedly, to the campus career center, but by then, "it's too late to significantly affect anything they did in college." By then, "you can burnish your job-search skills," but what you present on a resumé or in an interview depends on what you've done in the previous four years, not the previous four weeks.

In late March, Rutgers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 444 college graduates who earned bachelor's degrees from 2006 through 2011. Two-thirds of those questioned - 315 graduates from the Classes of 2006 to 2010 - had also been surveyed last year for a related Rutgers report.

The latest data, and similar data gathered for the study released by the Heldrich Center in May 2011, drives educators to a kind of desperation to help students succeed in a job market in which 12.5 million people are unemployed. In April, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 13.2 percent.

That's why Susan Lawrence, dean of educational initiatives and core curriculum at Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences, feels only partly guilty for the workload imposed in a pilot class aimed at sophomores this spring.

"In my eagerness to help them, I assigned more work than I should have for a one-credit course," she confessed.

The aim of the course, "Career Readiness," was to avoid the "aha" moment that Horn mentioned, perhaps more aptly described as the "oops" moment. Developed with the Heldrich data in mind, the curriculum included a skills assessment and lots of talk about how to translate academic accomplishments into job attributes that potential employers would value.

Lawrence said she didn't want to replicate the services of the campus career center (although one assignment was to visit the center).

Instead, she wanted to influence students to develop a lifelong mind-set of continuous learning and think more strategically about their time at college. "Sophomores aren't really thinking about the future in very concrete ways," Lawrence said.

For example, the course pushed students to consider how they might use extracurricular activities to boost their skills and resumés.

In a focus group at the end of the semester, one student, speaking anonymously, said he wouldn't recommend the course - too much work for what was really common sense. But another disagreed, saying professorial nagging prompted him to do what he would not have on his own.

"I would have never gone to the career center," the student said. "I'm so happy. My resumé looks awesome."

Van Horn said the study data tell him "one of the things colleges can do is show students how to be more successful in the labor market. [Students] can't change the labor market, but they can change their preparation for the labor market."

Though that may help some students in the future, it doesn't change the reality for recent college graduates.

"They've done everything right," Van Horn said. "They graduated from high school, they went to college, and they got a degree, all in preparation for what we consider the American dream, which is to enter a secure job with benefits that allow you to get married, buy a house, have children."

Some in the study said it would be more than 10 years before they would be able to afford houses, start families, or even have jobs that allow them to live comfortably, but the majority said they thought they would achieve those milestones in the next few years.

Only 18 percent said they currently earned enough to have comfortable lives.

In many ways, Ariana Becher, 26, fits the profile of the graduates in the Rutgers study. A 2008 graduate of Temple University's Tyler School of Art, where she majored in sculpture, she doesn't have one job: She has three, and none of them relates to her major.

Though many of the young people in the Rutgers study rely on their parents, Becher does not. Her three jobs give her enough money to afford to share a basement apartment in Center City and slowly chip away at her $12,000 in student loans.

Like some in the study, she has decided to return to school. In January, she enrolled in the culinary-arts program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, accumulating even more debt. "I'm definitely stressed out when it's that time of the month to pay the bills," Becher said.

Despite that, she's not pessimistic. She said she believed she would be more successful than her parents. She's pleased with her new direction, and pleased with an opportunity to help design a mural for President Obama's Philadelphia campaign headquarters.

No matter what she does, she'll always do art - even cooking, Becher said, is an art.

"I feel I'm on the path of being successful," she said. "I'm very driven."


In "Struggling for Work: Broken Dreams of a New Generation," The Inquirer goes behind the unemployment rates and high college debt to describe the struggles young people are facing and detail what needs changing to help them. Read the series and find exclusive multimedia at www.philly.com/phljobs


Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her "Jobbing" blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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