A Congratulatory Note to Our New Grads (With a Caveat)

By Robert Valencia

My niece—who is pursuing a degree in psychology—asked me a week ago to review her essay on the American Dream for one of her English courses. Her essay began explaining what the “American Dream” ought to be: economic mobility, home ownership, and better education. But the remaining two pages offered a gloomy viewpoint: the American Dream has become more and more elusive for her.

Though she’s two years shy from obtaining her bachelor’s degree, her disappointment in finding a job (or in her case, a paid internship) very much reflects not only what our latest Public Opinion Monthly found with regard to the mounting pessimism surrounding the “Dream” premise, but also the economic outlook many of the brand-new college graduates face today. According to a recent article from The New York Times, employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years in tandem with their starting salary: $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who joined the workforce in 2006 to 2008.

Some of the lucky members of the Class of 2010—56 percent—have held at least one job during the spring semester. However, some the jobs these graduates attain do not necessarily require the skills they learned in college; we hear stories from chemistry majors working in retail stores or Latin American studies graduates tending bar or waiting tables. What’s more, many of these students are having trouble paying student loans, which have reached a median of $20,000 for graduates in the classes of 2006 and 2010.

To make matters worse, some researchers point out that many of our new graduates are not being taught the necessary critical thinking and writing skills during their undergraduate years. NYU Professor Richard Arum co-authored the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a study that shows a large number of students who showed no progress on initial tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The book went on to say that many of them had minimal exposure to rigorous coursework, and that the average student only spent 12 to 13 hours per week studying. The authors believe that academic investments have become a lower priority, as many schools prefer to invest in “student centers, deluxe dormitory rooms, and expensive gyms.”

As we approach a new electoral cycle, it is imperative to remind our elected officials that expanding economic and educational opportunities for all must be paramount in their political agenda. Despite such a bleak outlook, our recent graduates deserve a fair chance to achieve their full potential, and where they start out in their lives should not predetermine where they end up. Our country should adopt programs like student loan counseling (for recent grads) and worker retraining (for the more experienced workforce) that will in turn strengthen our economy.

All in all, we salute all the new graduates in the prime of their professional lives—an effort that in the end will pay off financially and intellectually, even though unemployment and other negative factors stand in their way for now. And here is perhaps a note of relief: We’re all in this together, and it’s our responsibility as a society to create and hold on to basic tools and resources to provide security for ourselves and our families. To read more about The Opportunity Agenda’s work on economic recovery and opportunity, click here.

Tags: Education, Economy, graduation, unemployment, American Dream (all tags)

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