1:54am

Thu May 10, 2012
Economy

College Grads Struggle To Gain Financial Footing

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 3:48 am

Most of the estimated 1.5 million people graduating from a four-year college this spring will soon be looking for a job.

If the experiences of other recent college grads are any guide, many will be disappointed.

A new Rutgers University survey of those who graduated from college between 2006 and 2011 finds that just half of those grads are working full time.

Settling For Part Time

"I thought I wasn't going to get a job," says Caitlin LaCour, who entered Columbia College Chicago the year the most recent recession began. By the time she graduated in 2011, she says, "I was happy to have one part-time job."

LaCour also felt lucky that the job, doing promotions for a Chicago radio station, related to her major in radio production. But she earns just $10 an hour. By the time she had to start making payments on her $100,000 student loan debt, LaCour realized her paycheck would not be nearly enough.

She took on a second part-time job at a shoe store, and then a third, also at the radio station.

"I got addicted to working," LaCour says. "I just burned myself out, because I didn't want to have to worry about not being able to pay my loans."

LaCour must pay more than $700 each month in student loans, and the only way she can make the payments is by living rent-free with her parents.

It's a situation that's come to symbolize graduating post-recession.

More Have Debt Than Have Jobs

"More come out with debt than come out with jobs," says Cliff Zukin, a senior research fellow with the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

The center's new study finds that 6 in 10 students take on debt — more than $20,000 on average — even as a lack of jobs leaves them less able to pay it back.

"In the data," Zukin says, "there's certainly a suggestion that the American dream has stopped at these guys' doorstep."

Zukin says nearly half of college graduates with full-time work are in jobs that don't require a college degree. And very few respondents say their first job will lead to a career. In fact, one-third of recent college grads say they no longer believe education combined with hard work will necessarily lead to success.

"They don't even see in the foreseeable future a secure job, a comfortable income, starting a family," he says. "And even more — 45 percent — do not see owning a home at any point in the near future."

Moreover, Zukin notes, this survey depicts the "cream of the crop" — the minority of young Americans who go to college. Unemployment is far higher among those who don't.

Long-Term Impact

The Rutgers study finds that one-fifth of recent college grads have gone back to school — where many are now accumulating more debt.

Meanwhile, those respondents who got jobs since the recession began are making less than their peers who graduated in 2006 and 2007.

The difference amounts to "about 10 percent lower earnings," says Columbia University economist Till von Wachter. His research indicates that the depressed earnings can last a decade or more, although that effect can vary.

An engineering grad from a top school, for example, can job-hop and get back to a higher earning level in three or four years, von Wachter says. But "students who come from smaller, less-well-known schools and have majors such as humanities or arts — they tend to have depressed career paths lasting for a very long time."

Indeed, given the current job market, many respondents to the Rutgers survey now say they wish they had majored in something else.

Researcher Cliff Zukin wonders if it's the end of the happy, self-confident "millennial generation."

But while the Rutgers study may be sobering, many recent grads still retain a sense of optimism.

"I love the people I work with. I love my customers. I'm a people person," says Tiffany Conner, who graduated in 2009 and is now working, by choice, in two part-time retail jobs.

After college, Conner landed a full-time job in her field of marketing. But the work didn't make her happy, so she quit and moved back in with her parents in Wisconsin to figure out something else.

Conner's focus now is paying down her student loan and credit card debt.

"Debt is just one of those pieces of life, and being miserable about it isn't good either," Conner laughs. "So, keep my head up high, I guess. Keep plugging away, and I have nothing to be ashamed of."

After all, she knows she has plenty of company.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This spring, about one and half million people across the United States are graduating from a four-year college. Most will be looking for a job.

GREENE: And they have reason to expect one. Experts have said countless times, including on this program, that a college education tremendously improves your odds in the job market. But if the experiences of recent graduates are any guide, many will be disappointed.

INSKEEP: A new survey out today tracks college grads since 2006. Just half of them are working full-time.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The recession started in Caitlin Lacour's freshman year at Columbia College, Chicago. By graduation last year...

CAITLIN LACOUR: I thought that I wasn't going to get a job...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LACOUR: ...like many people. But I was happy to, you know, have one part-time job.

LUDDEN: And Lacour feels lucky that it's related to her major in radio production. She does promotions at a radio station. But she earns just $10 an hour. And by the time she had to start payments on her $100,000 in student loans, she realized it would not be nearly enough. Lacour took on a second part-time job, at a shoe store, then a third, also at the radio station.

LACOUR: Like I got addicted to working, pretty much, to where I kind of just like burned myself out. 'Cause I didn't want to have to worry about not being able to pay my loans.

LUDDEN: Those student loans are more than $700 a month. And the only way she can pay them, living rent-free with her parents - a situation that's come to symbolize graduating post-recession.

CLIFF ZUKIN: More come out with debt than come out with jobs.

LUDDEN: Cliff Zukin is with the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. His new study finds six in 10 students take on debt - more than $20,000 on average - even as a lack of jobs leaves them less able to pay it back.

ZUKIN: In the data, there's certainly a suggestion that the American Dream has stopped at these guys' doorstep.

LUDDEN: Zukin says nearly half those with full-time work are in jobs that don't actually require a college degree. And as for a career, very few say their first job would lead to that. In fact, a third of recent college grads say they no longer believe education plus hard work will necessarily lead to success.

ZUKIN: They don't even see in the foreseeable future a secure job, a comfortable income, starting a family, and even more - 45 percent - do not see owning a home at any point in the near future.

LUDDEN: And Zukin notes these are the cream of the crop. Unemployment is far higher among the majority of young Americans who don't go to college. The Rutgers study finds a fifth of recent grads have gone back to school, where many are accumulating more debt. Meantime, those getting jobs since the recession have seen a hit on their paychecks.

TILL VON WACHTER: About 10 percent lower earnings. And that earnings effect fades in about 10 years.

LUDDEN: Although it varies, says Columbia University economist Till von Wachter. If you're, say, an engineering grad from a top school, his research shows you can job-hop and get back to what you would have been earning in three or four years. But...

WACHTER: Students who come from smaller, less well-known schools and have majors such as humanities or arts, they tend to have depressed career paths lasting for a very long time.

LUDDEN: And in fact, many grads in the Rutgers survey say they wished they'd majored in something else.

Researcher Cliff Zukin wonders if it's the end of the happy, self-confident millennials, as we've come to know them. Then again, it can be more depressing to read the study's numbers than to speak with some recent grads.

TIFFANY CONNER: I love the people I work with. I love my customers. I'm a people person.

LUDDEN: Tiffany Conner's working two part-time retail jobs in Wisconsin, by choice. After graduating in 2009, she actually landed a full-time job in her field of marketing. But it didn't make her happy. So she quit and moved back in with her parents to figure out something new. Conner's focus now is paying down student loan and credit card debt.

CONNER: You know, debt is just one of those pieces of life, and being miserable about it isn't good either. So keep my head up high, I guess. Keep plugging away and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: After all, she knows she has plenty of company.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.