Half of College Grads Underemployed

College graduation flag

According to a report released this week by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, half of working 2010 college graduates are in jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree, and 38 percent are in jobs that don’t even require a high school diploma.

The report also found the number of college grads will grow by 19 million between 2010 and 2020, while the number of jobs requiring a college education is projected to grow by less than 7 million.

U.S. Census figures show the percentage of college graduates has steadily increased since 1940.

In 1940, 5% of the population aged 25 and older held a bachelor’s or higher degree. By 2009 that percentage had increased five times to 30%.

According to the Pew Research Center, a record one in five households has student loan debt. That’s more than double the rate from 20 years ago.

As a society we tell young people “you have to go to college if you want to be successful… if you want to get a good job.” We tell them a college degree is their ticket into the door of gainful employment. If they aspire to do more than flip hamburgers they need a degree.

And while I don’t disagree a college degree can be helpful… it can elevate you as a job candidate over others who don’t possess a degree, I also know that college is not for everyone.

College is also a lot more expensive than it used to be.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics the average annual cost of attending a four-year institution (both public and private) in 1981 was $8000. By 2011 that cost had risen to $21,000.

I graduated from college in 1985. I put myself through school by working a job, not taking out student loans. I also attended a two year junior college followed by a local state university. Yes, I accrued about $6000 in credit card debt to help cover my living expenses, but that debt was paid off within a year of graduating. I also got a job in my desired field within a month or so of graduating, and was able to easily maintain gainful employment in that field for years, until I decided to start my own business.

Hardly the case for many college students these days.

As I wrote in Breaking the Spell the competitive academic arena has seen to that. Kids spend their high school careers focusing on how to get into college. And not just college, but the best college. While some earn scholarships and grants, many take out student loans to finance a degree from these coveted schools. Tuition at an elite private university can top $200,000 over the course of four years. That’s a lot of debt to take on when that degree may not even get you a job. And today, that college diploma just doesn’t seem to be the golden ticket it was in year’s past.

I’m not saying kids shouldn’t go to college.

I’m also not saying they shouldn’t aspire to go to the college of their dreams, if that’s what they really want and if they can afford to.

But college is not for everyone. The book Boys Adrift discusses a shortage of skilled trade workers due in large part to the “bad rap” the trades have received. When my kids were in high school, it was very competitive. The focus was on getting the best grades, participating in extracurricular activities such as sports, and getting top test scores, so they could get into a good college. In fact, my kids always talked about going to college. Not so much because we pushed it. Because it just seemed to be what A students do after high school. It’s what their high school groomed them to do. And, as a parent, of course you want your kids to be successful.

And college equals success, right? Maybe… maybe not.

While both my kids were A students in high school, they have since taken very different paths.

One earned a scholarship and secured grants to attend a prestigious, private, liberal arts college. It was a great life experience for her. She earned a bachelor’s degree and is now pursuing a graduate degree because it is required to work in her field of choice: psychology.

My son, on the other hand, chose to attend a local state university. After two years of feeling lost, he chose to drop out. It was clear to us all that at least for right now, college is not the right place for him. It’s an expensive place to “find yourself” if you aren’t sure what you want to do. Will he go back one day? I honestly don’t know. My only wish for him is to find work he enjoys and that makes him happy. That may or may not involve a college degree.

As the current research shows, that coveted college degree is no guarantee either.

I think it’s time to step back and re-evaluate the mentality that says “you have to go to college.”

We ought to stop measuring people’s worth based on their level of education.

Yes, education can be valuable. But it’s not the only path.

We ought to encourage our kids to spend their time exploring and discovering what excites them. What they’re good at. What they want to spend their life doing. Considering how they can best serve the world while making a living and supporting themselves. And to not feel “less than” if they decide college is not the right path for them.

In many ways I feel as though I’m now helping my son recover from all of this.

He’s smart. He’s talented. And, he’s a good kid. So college wasn’t the right fit for him, or at least not right now. That’s OK. He shouldn’t have to feel bad, or like he failed. He ought to be able to feel free to discover what does make his heart sing.


About Debbie

After spending 32 years in marketing, Debbie now spends her time blogging, teaching online courses, doing volunteer pet therapy, and encouraging others to follow a more inspired path through life.

4 comments on “Half of College Grads Underemployed

  1. Hi Debbie,

    I hope I’m not commenting too much, but you write great stuff that gets my mind going.

    I too am one of those that couldn’t do college. I earned a diploma from a private school in photography. At the time it was the only way I could get any education because I was married and not able to go away to a school to learn that.

    My son as well didn’t finish college after two years of trying. But now he’s getting married and thriving in retail sales. He’s slowly moving up the management ladder and is really good at what he does.

    Interestingly enough, I’m in a bit of an existential crisis and wondering if I need an education. Maybe I need that piece of paper that supposedly says: hey, I’m smarter than the next guy. Interestingly enough we seem to look down on people who take correspondence (online) courses. Being someone that gets anxious (I have had panic attacks) they work better for me. I get to work at my own pace and don’t get that “test anxiety”. But I think employers don’t hold them in high regard.

    There’s a lot of pressure to perform, show how successful you are, win awards and generally out shine the next person. Just the thought of it gets me anxious.

    All the best,

  2. Commenting too much? NEVER! I love to hear other people’s perspectives. I certainly don’t want to be the only one talking! 🙂

    I can understand where you’re coming from regarding feeling you need an education. And I believe the decision to get an education to help you in a specific industry or career path or even a career change (if a degree is indeed required for what you want to do) is different than just getting a college degree to get a degree. When it’s a means to a specific end (as it is for my daughter – she can’t do the job she wants to do without an advanced degree), and you understand it’s not a guarantee of a job, but rather acquiring the knowledge you need to qualify for a job, a college education makes sense.

    It is a competitive job market to be sure. And I suppose you’ll never really know if a college degree will get you the job you want unless you go for it. So I say go back to school if you want to learn, and you’ll enjoy the experience, and if it may help you do what you want to do in the future, and if you can afford it. But if fear is driving your decision, or you believe it will guarantee you a job, you may want to rethink it.

    Good Luck!

  3. Hi Debbie,
    You are right, again! College is not always the path to success. I took four years of study in Visual Communications, plus additional extension/part-time programs, learning the trade of graphic design, marketing and communications. 25 years later, I’m looking at Odesk and see that “jobs” for freelance logo designers will pay them $0.50 per “logo”. Yup, fifty cents, not even fifty dollars. So all those specialized skills and knowledge, all the training and experience were for not. I’m now a receptionist at a small local business. It’s the only thing I can find that pays more than minimum wage and doesn’t involve flipping burgers or folding towels.
    Am I still encouraging my kids to get post-secondary education? Yes. My son wants to be an officer in the Cdn. Air Force which requires a university degree. My daughter (only 12) has visions of playing hockey in the Olympics, so between her hockey and French Immersion there may be scholarship opportunities from which she can choose. (In Canada, being bilingual puts your resume on the top of the heap for a lot of national executive/government jobs.)
    As long as my kids stay far, far away from the design industry, they have a shot of being able to afford the roof over their heads. 😉
    At the end of the day, they have to find the path that is theirs to follow. Everyone needs their cars fixed. Everyone needs plumbing and electricity. Trades are a great career choice for a lot of young people, and there will always be a need for them.
    To your son, kudos for figuring out you were not in your right space. I’m sure you’ll find it in due time. 🙂

  4. Thanks Patricia. 🙂
    And I agree, it’s important to encourage our kids (and adults, too) to find their own best path, whether that means college, trade school, or something else.

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