The job market is hot. So why are half of U.S. grads missing out?


Millions of Americans are seeing little return from their expensive college degrees — even in today’s hot job market.

For the first time in decades, recent college graduates are more likely to be out of work than the population as a whole, according to the New York Federal Reserve. And for the lower-earning half of college grads, the wage premium is shrinking fast.

Unemployment among Americans ages 22 to 27 who recently earned a bachelor’s degree or higher was 3.9% in December — about 0.3 percentage point above the rate for all workers.


It’s another worrying sign for a generation that borrowed record amounts of money to get through higher education as the cost of tuition soared. The $1.6 trillion in U.S. student debt, which has doubled in the last decade, is weighing on the economy and spurring politicians to offer fixes as diverse as targeted aid and across-the-board forgiveness.

The strong job market should be helping graduates pay what they owe — and at the top end of the wage scale, it is. But in recent years, although high school graduates have seen a sharp pickup in earnings, the lower-earning half of college graduates haven’t — and the gap between them is now the smallest in 15 years.

More than 4 in 10 recent graduates are working in jobs that don’t usually require a college degree, the New York Fed said. And roughly 1 in 8 is working in a field where typical pay is around $25,000 a year or less.

The economy is creating a lot of jobs like that — and it’s expected to create even more. In the occupations that are forecast to grow fastest over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — home care and restaurant cooks, among them — typical salaries range from $24,000 to $26,500.

Part of the problem is that the job market is saturated with degree holders, while tight labor conditions have ramped up demand for a different kind of skills — bringing benefits to electricians and plumbers, for example.

Those workers still have plenty of ground to make up. Pay for Americans who have only high school qualifications has been in long-term decline — and even after the gains of recent years, they earn less than they did in 1990.


But the slow start for newly minted graduates may reflect broad job market strength, not weakness, said Steve Bronars, an economist with Edgeworth Economics. Eager new graduates are still enjoying one of the best labor markets in years.

“It takes time for people just out of school to find a job, and recent graduates change jobs more frequently,” Bronars said. With the overall U.S. unemployment rate at a 50-year low “these new graduates are being compared to a workforce that is highly utilized.”

Finding fresh employment out of college is often harder than changing jobs for existing workers, he said. New graduates typically take more time making contacts in their industry and nailing down interviews, for example.

Meanwhile, better-off college graduates have been the big winners over the last 30 years — even if their gains have flattened out lately.

But the bottom half of college grads have been losers in both the short and the long run.

That’s likely the group that is having the most trouble paying back the money they borrowed to go to college — and they might be engaged in that struggle all through their working lives. Already, 5% of student debt is held by seniors, and the figure has been steadily rising.

Tanzi and Dmitrieva write for Bloomberg.