Members of the Class of 2012,
As a former secretary of labor and current professor, I feel I owe it to you to tell you the truth about the pieces of parchment you're picking up today.
Well, not exactly. But you won't have it easy.
First, you're going to have a hell of a hard time finding a job. The job market you're heading into is still bad. Fewer than half of the graduates from last year's class have as yet found full-time jobs. Most are still looking.
That's been the pattern over the last three graduating classes: It's been taking graduates more than a year to land the first job. And those who still haven't found a job will be competing with you, making your job search even harder.
Contrast this with the class of 2008, whose members were lucky enough to get out of here and into the job market before the Great Recession really hit. Almost three-quarters of them found jobs within the year.
You're still better off than your friends who didn't graduate. Overall, the unemployment rate among young people (21 to 24 years old) with four-year college degrees is now 6.4 percent. With just a high school degree, the rate is double that.
But even when you get a job, it's likely to pay peanuts.
Last year's young college graduates lucky enough to land jobs had an average hourly wage of only $16.81, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute. That's about $35,000 a year -- lower than the yearly earnings of young college graduates in 2007, before the Great Recession. The typical wage of young college graduates dropped 4.6 percent between 2007 and 2011, adjusted for inflation.
Presumably, this means that when we come out of the gravitational pull of the recession, your wages will improve. But there's a longer-term trend that should concern you. The decline in the earnings of college grads really began more than a decade ago. Young college grads with jobs are earnings 5.4 percent less than they did in the year 2000, adjusted for inflation.
Don't get me wrong. A four-year college degree is still valuable. Over your lifetimes, you'll earn about 70 percent more than people who don't have the pieces of parchment you're picking up today.
But this parchment isn't as valuable as it once was. So much of what was once considered "knowledge work" -- the kind that college graduates specialize in -- can now be done more cheaply by software. Or by workers with college degrees in India or East Asia, linked up by Internet.
For many of you, your immediate problem is that pile of debt on your shoulders. In a few moments, when you march out of here, those of you who have taken out college loans will owe more than $25,000 on average. Last year, 10 percent of college grads with loans owed more than $54,000. Your parents have also taken out loans to help you. Loans to parents for the college educations of their children have soared 75 percent since the academic year 2005-2006.
Outstanding student debt now totals more than $1 trillion. That's more than the nation's total credit-card debt.
The extraordinary rise in student debt is due to two related facts: The cost of a college education continues to increase faster than inflation, and state and local spending per college student continues to drop -- this year reaching a 25-year low.
But this can't go on. If unemployment stays high for many years, if the wages of young college grads continue to fall, if the costs of college continue to rise and state and local spending per college student continues to drop, and if the college debt burden therefore continues to explode -- well, you do the math.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, these lines cross. College is no longer a good investment.
That's a problem for you and for those who will follow you into these hallowed halls, but it's also a problem for America as a whole.
You see, a college education isn't just a private investment. It's also a public good. This nation can't be competitive globally, nor can we have a vibrant and responsible democracy, without a large number of well-educated people.
So it's not just you who are burdened by these trends. If they continue, we're all screwed.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of the newly released "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf e-book original.