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Is College Necessary? Ask Recent Graduates

Are young college graduates changing the way we value college degrees?

Lately the question “Is College Necessary?” has been under debate. One factor sparking the debate is the record 85 percent of recent college grads living with their parents. While economists and academics argue about the benefits of a college education and the loan debt incurred by many students, what are recent college grads thinking, especially those who can’t find jobs or if they do, cannot support themselves? 

In this guest post, Cristina Schreil, a 2011 graduate of New York University who majored in English Literature and Journalism, investigated how her generation feels about the expectations they had and what they feel now—diplomas in hand. Like many of her peers, she admits, “in no way am I supporting myself 100 percent, but I am still pursuing the goal of working in journalism full time. I think it's going to be a long journey.” Here is what Cristina learned about her peer’s attitudes and struggles:

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The economy is giving young college grads a run for their money—that is, if they could find a way to earn it.

A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center, published the day I graduated, found, “A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority—75%—says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.” 

Many of my peers are convinced that having a college degree is not producing what was promised. As kids, we heard repeatedly that college “opens doors.” Most of us presumed these doors would open to dream opportunities or a starter job in fields we wanted to dedicate our careers to—not to a recession where so many graduates are reportedly unemployed. Ironically, the widespread inability to find a job despite hard work in college made many more fearful. Armed with a hard-earned degree that no longer equals prosperity, many feel unfairly doomed to struggle. 

College Grads: Doomed to Struggle? 

“We are a very entitled generation,” 23-year-old Lilia Sterling, who moved in with her parents after graduating from NYU, observed. Sterling confronted a fruitless job search.

“My parents said, maybe not explicitly, do whatever you love, do whatever makes you happy.” Months later, she finally realized, “‘It’s time to do whatever I can.’” 

Part of Sterling isn’t surprised her generation struggles. A combination of being spoon-fed a dreamer’s rhetoric and becoming entrenched in the pressures of academia gave many young grads the headstrong belief that they’ve already worked for the job they deserve.

Our parents instilled in us the belief that a college education was our right. Like Sterling’s parents, my mother, who emigrated from The Philippines and never went to college herself, stressed: “Get a degree. Go places I never could.” 

But, can we? According to a June 2012 report by Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy, even as the overall job market has rebounded in the last two years, the employment prospects for college graduates have declined. If the economic situation for young bachelor’s degree holders were at pre-recession levels, most, if not all, of us would have jobs today.

Also as stated in the Drexel Report, Sterling is among the 40.7 percent of young bachelor’s degree holders who are “mal-employed,” or work in a job that has no application of one’s bachelor’s degree. Sterling works as a camp counselor, not as an anthropologist, as her degree would suggest. But to those who can’t find work in their chosen field, mal-employment is a welcome alternative. 

Underemployed, but Holding On 

Brianna Flaherty, who graduated in May and lives in New York City before she’ll have “to give up and move home,” is unemployed. She spends hours on Craigslist and writing cover letters. When she interviewed at a bakery recently, there were 250 others competing with her to frost cupcakes at 5:00am. 

“I no longer buy into the idea that having a degree will give you your dream job,” she told me. She’s exasperated. “I see on Craigslist that my Creative Writing degree, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, qualifies me to be a receptionist.” 

When asked why that would be disappointing, she echoed Sterling: “My parents raised me to do something I was passionate about.”

Along with disappointment in their degrees, many are bitter that higher education swarms with pressure and competition. Thousands of dollars go toward college counselors, SAT tutors, and more. Madness even starts at the pre-school level. Despite our parents’ enormous emphasis on the power of college for their children, we’re the ones faced with a game-changing recession; perhaps we shouldn’t have learned to ace standardized tests, but rather to make connections.

Brian Bradley, who graduated in June from University of California, Davis, faced consuming pressures to shine. He says it’s a feeling of, “I worked so hard for my degree. I succeeded in what my parents told me to do. Now what?” We’re more burnt out when we not only have to keep working hard, but also work harder in different ways than college primed us for. Bradley believes, “This generation isn’t as willing to take the jobs that older generations would. We think those service jobs aren’t good enough for us.” 

Are we stubborn about not taking anything less than what we feel we’re worth? Would we rather sit and wait for our degrees to be useful than start anew and struggle? Or, could all this distress be that doom and gloom stories spike during a recession? A 2011 NPR piece raised the point that over time, trends prove that college grads can indeed demand more and more money, while others are not as likely to do so. 

Perhaps one difference between college grads in recessions of the past and grads today is our lack of patience. 

“We’re used to getting what we want, right away,” says Alana Dowden, a grad from University of California, Santa Barbara. “If we want to download a song, we can hear it in seconds.” To Dowden, this could prove frustrating for job-hunting grads that need to adapt to the “real world,” adopting a completely different outlook than they did in school.

As Dowden and her peers look toward their uncertain futures, the Pew Research Center says there’s a chance they’ll find ways to be optimistic nonetheless. Of the 88% of young adults who don’t have or earn enough money at the present, “Only 9% say they don’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want.”

That’s 91% still hopeful. For now, we’ll take it. 

Related: Living with Parents: Stunted Development or Opportunity? and The College Grad Comes Home: Essential solutions for living with your college graduate again  

Resources: 

Anonymous. “Is College Worth It?” Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Pew Research Center, 15 May 2011. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/05/15/is-college-worth-it/ 

Anonymous. "Young, Underemployed and Optimistic." Pew Social & Demographic Trends. Pew Research Center, 9 Feb. 2012. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/02/09/young-underemployed-and-optimistic/ 

Fogg, Neeta P. and Harrington, Paul E. “The Employment and Mal‐Employment Situation for Recent College Graduates: An Update.” Center for Labor Markets and Policy Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 2012. http://www.drexel.edu/~/media/Files/now/pdfs/Research%20Brief.ashx

Ho, Erica. "Survey: 85% of New College Grads Move Back in with Mom and Dad." TIME.com. 10 May 2011. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/05/10/survey-85-of-new-college-grads-moving-back-in-with-mom-and-dad/

Newman, Susan. Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily (Lyons Press, 2010)

Staff, NPR. "Making Headlines Since The '70s: Is College Worth It?" NPR. NPR, 18 June 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/06/18/137257390/making-headlines-since-the-70s-is-college-worth-it%20 

Copyright 2012 by Susan Newman

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