Pomp and Poor Circumstances


When the parents of this year's college graduates picked up their own degrees two or three decades ago, they were tickets to a career. No longer.

Just as the high school diploma was overtaken by the baccalaureate degree a couple of generations ago, the traditional sheepskin isn't enough to guarantee a respectable job any longer.

In part that is a reflection of the current recession, but it is not the whole story. A tighter job market, combined with the expansion of a global economy, raises new challenges for this year's college graduates.

Precise statistics are hard to come by so soon after commencement, but employment specialists agree this year will at least as bleak as last year for new graduates -- and last year was the worst in decades. A University of Maryland counselor told Kim Clark of The Sun that she estimated only 25 to 30 percent of this year's graduates had jobs lined up by graduation time. A Northwestern University survey estimated there will be 4 percent fewer jobs for non-engineers this year than last. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 200,000 fewer jobs for college graduates each year for the rest of this decade.

So what's a new graduate to do? More and more flood graduate and professional schools in the belief that only higher degrees count these days. Others scrounge temporary jobs while mailing and faxing applications by the dozen. Others settle for jobs they would not have thought worthy of them when they entered college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of college graduates who were working in 1990 were -- in bureaucratese -- "educationally underutilized." That means they were doing things that do not usually require a college degree. Other estimates go a lot higher.

The tighter job market has allowed many companies to demand higher qualifications of the new graduates. Real work experience is one -- not the traditional summer job, but year-round employment, at least part time. Language skills is another -- not tourist French or Spanish but the ability to do business in the newly expanding markets on all the continents. It also raises questions -- in parents' minds if not their children's -- about the return on their rather substantial investments in higher education.

A rewarding career and a comfortable middle-class life is hard to achieve in this country without a college degree. But that sheepskin is no longer the passport to the American Dream that it was a generation ago.

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