Graduate Unemployment: The Threat to Higher Education

Fiscal year, 2009, will go down in the annals of history as one of the most difficult for higher education. Many colleges and universities have had to trim to the bone, collectively shedding thousands of positions, while they try to beef up financial aid budgets. A great deal of attention has been paid to managing the economic ramifications caused by falling endowments and high tuition.

But few colleges have addressed a related threat on the horizon: the inevitability of post-graduate unemployment. Prospects for high paying, high prestige jobs in finance are already as rare as a seven-figure donor. Outside of finance, the employment outlook is better, but realistically can be described as gloomy. And the bad news holds true, whether the student is completing undergraduate, graduate or professional school.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that significantly more than one million college graduates over the age of 25 lost their jobs in FY09, pushing the unemployment rate for their cohort to 4.8% in June, precisely double the rate of June, 2008. And, the unemployment rate for those new graduates currently seeking jobs is already at 10.8%.

Higher education might be tempted to avoid the issue of rising graduate unemployment and place its faith in the Career Services department to alleviate student anxiety about the future. Across the country, students are being advised to start their career searches early and be more flexible in their attitudes towards opportunities. But these initiatives, however valuable, are not enough. A situation of this magnitude requires a response from senior leadership at colleges and universities.

There are compelling reasons why higher education needs to address the impending career crisis. No college wants to field calls from hundreds of graduates (or their parents) who will be incapable of paying off student loans. Nor do they want to see their unemployed graduates profiled in the local or national media. For many schools, the career success of students also affects core issues like matriculation and retention.

In the summer of 2007, a leading educational research company, Eduventures, surveyed more than 5,500 freshmen and high school seniors about the factors that were important to them when choosing a college. Sixty percent, not surprisingly, considered the school’s overall academic reputation to be one of the top three factors. But an almost equal percentage cited the expectation that the school would prepare them for their careers.

The Eduventures data appears to suggest that students—and their parents—are willing to overlook the high cost of education if they believe there is an economic value to a degree. Students applying to college in 2009 are likely to carefully scrutinize the career outcomes for a particular institution. An expensive college whose graduates are still consistently unemployed may end up losing prospective matriculants to a public institution, or to a college that has found ways to mitigate the adverse effects of a poor economy.

The career crisis will undoubtedly be felt as we move into fall, but the problems for universities may begin much sooner, in the form of retention issues. Students, particularly those who attend school while working, may reconsider the wisdom of incurring substantial debt without a guarantee of a better position after graduation.

A recent advertisement for a part-time receptionist position in Rhode Island drew over one hundred applicants, a high proportion of whom were college graduates. Students who see recent graduates from their school accepting jobs that do not require college degrees may question their own educational investment.

So what is a college of university to do?

The first step is to recognize that graduate career success is essential to the long-term health of any institution of higher education. Even if matriculation and retention are not problems, the career success of alumni drives donations to the college and volunteer involvement.

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must communicate their vision of graduate success, and take steps to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved—regardless of the economy. Bold career leadership is required to exploit opportunities for institutional impact on a student long after graduation, while addressing immediate career issues.

Second, universities must appreciate the value of a coordinated approach to career development–one that integrates the experiences of the student in and out of the classroom, and incorporates service learning, study abroad, athletics, student leadership, mentored research and internships. Currently, the divisions that house each of these functions often act more like silos than collaborators, leading to duplication of effort and confusion.

The recommendation to involve different areas in no way implies that everything that happens on a college campus is career-related, or that the academic agenda needs to be changed. Rather, it is recognition that without high-level oversight and common understanding, it will be more difficult to achieve post-graduate career success.

Third, colleges and universities must capitalize on their own resources. Many academic institutions have networks of alumni who have volunteered to give career advice to students and alumni. This is the time to expand the networks to include parents and friends, and to build more personal relationships with volunteers. A concerted effort must also be made to prepare students to take advantage of such networks.

A key requirement in this economy is to be aware of a volunteer’s work situation. When a volunteer is well situated, he may enjoy being tapped for job leads and advice. But when the volunteer has, himself, fallen victim to the economy, a college builds extraordinary good will and long term commitment by offering the option of advice for his own career.

Finally, it is important that any new initiative involve professionals in the career services department. These are the people who have their fingers on the pulse of university, student, and employer needs. Given clear goals, they can assist university leaders in designing strategies and initiatives. But they cannot do it alone. There must be an expectation that university departments will work together.

Institutions of higher education are currently facing significant financial restraints. Fortunately, the ability to address the career crisis requires a comparatively small financial investment, or the redistribution of existing funds. What is much more important than money is a new vision for careers and graduate success.

Colleges and universities that deal with increasing demand for career assistance by providing more of the same services to students will forego the benefits that accrue to institutions which adopt a more creative, coordinated, and inclusive approach to careers.

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