If College Leads to Jobs, Why Are So Many Young College Grads Unemployed?

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It's easy to debate the value of college, but it's impossible to doubt the clear difference between the unemployment rates of those with a college degree and those without a college degree. Just 4 percent of America's bachelor's holders (in blue in the graph below) are unemployed today. For high-school grads who skip college (in purple), the jobless rate is twice as high.

unemployedfeb2013.jpg

That picture looks pretty conclusive. Go to college, and you'll raise your odds of finding a job. So what do we make of all these stories about 50 percent of recent graduates being unemployed?

A new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics helps us answer the question. They take a snapshot of the employment situation for recent college grads from 2007 through 2011 and find that they are always unemployed at higher levels than the rest of the country (especially the guys). Here are those numbers in a chart:

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 3.11.12 PM.png

I can make this picture even simpler by showing you two years: 2007 and 2011. As you can see, the recession and the weak recovery have been hard on every group. But they've been hardest on those with less than a high-school degree. They saw the steepest rise in unemployment.

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 3.17.01 PM.png

I think the following five things are true about college in America today:

(1) Going to college gives many people a better chance to get a job and earn more money.

(2) It's a tough job market today for young college graduates (especially guys).

(3) It's *always* a tougher job market for younger people, including college graduates.

(4) The benefits of college are clear, but they are also being tested in a weak economy where young BA-holders are facing competition from not only a larger pool of BA-holders, but also those familiar forces of globalization and technology.

(5) If the costs of attaining a bachelor's degree continue to rise faster than the benefits of having a BA in this labor force, more middle- and lower-income families might be better served by being strategic and aiming for an associate or online degree combined with some sort of targeted vocational program.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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