Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two Million Americans Over 25 With At Least a BA Are Unemployed. Are You One of Them?

Illustration by Graham Roumieu for Good

If you are staying in this weekend and want to catch up on a real-life horror story, watch Frontline's College Inc. on the booming for-profit higher education system. I mentioned College Inc. to BIDER readers in the Spring, but never got around to embedding the video for those of you who missed it on television.

Some of the facts mentioned in this Frontline program are frightening. The University of Phoenix enrolls close to half a million students, more than the entire University of California system and all the Ivy League schools combined. Mass producing education doesn't make our country smarter or better equipped to compete in the global job market. All it does is sink our country further into debt to obtain a crappy education and a worthless degree. The only people who benefit from the higher education scam currently in place are the scam artists who run the system, their business partners, and their friends on Capitol Hill.

The law scam blogs received a lot of traffic this week from a Slate article that became the most read article on the site for at least several days. I received a letter from one person who found our blog through the Slate article:

I stumbled onto your blogs from the article today and thought I would write you both.

A little background first. I graduated spring of '08 in California and finished my thesis about 3 weeks before all hell broke loose. Just to let you guys know, jobs aren't better anywhere. I was unemployed for 8 months and got a job with a large defense contractor. I had to stand in line with 3000 other applicants for whatever they had; think 1930's soup line. The offered me one in Philly and off I went. At this point I think I had applied for about 250 jobs. About 3 weeks into that job, I realized it was largely fraudulent and so decided to continue looking elsewhere. 2089 job applications later, I got a great one out here in Colorado.

I want to highlight that for you. 2089 job applications. It took me 2K applications to get to an interview which was successful. I applied in every major metropolitan area in the US for every job that was even close to my experience in everything that was online or in the classifieds. I mean I cold-called, I faxed, I emailed, I worked it hard. My resume is alright, I can send it to you if you'd like to see. (hey, you never can stop looking these days) But it took 2000 applications to get another job.

I want you both to know that. It is bad out here, and you are not alone in the law profession. You decision to go into law made no difference. It is largely luck and contacts that get you work.The engineering job market is just as terrible, hell, all the job markets are terrible. Every week the Times comes out saying that it's ageism, or sexism, or reverse racism. Fact is, it just sucks period.

So don't get down. Getting discouraged does you no good, You gotta attack it every day. Insert pop-psychology statements. Really, though, it sucks, we all know, but you gotta go for gold.

Good luck to you both. I hope for the best for you and keep up the blogging, I appreciate the work and the words. Thank you.

Thanks to this new BIDER reader for taking the time to write and comment on our blog. I am glad to hear that hard work and perseverance still pays off for a few people out there. I encourage everyone to stay motivated and keep applying even though I know how difficult it is to maintain any energy or hope after being unemployed for a year, two years, or longer. But I also realize that some of our readers will send out thousands of job applications and still never get even an interview. Some will get lucky or have a contact that will help them, but I believe the majority will lose out and end up unemployed for years or in a menial job. That's the risk our generation takes when they invest $100-200k in an education that may or may not help them find a job after graduation.

I stumbled across an article,"Young, Educated, and Unemployed: A New Generation of Kids Search for Work in their 20s", at Good. It just shows that millions out there, even with a degree from a good school, cannot find an entry-level job suited for their level of education.

Since January, for 35 hours a week, at a rate of $10 an hour, Luke Stacks has been working for a home-electronics chain. He answers the phone and attempts to coax callers into buying more stuff. This is not how he imagined he would be spending his late 20s.

Like a lot of us, Stacks was given a fairly straightforward version of how his life would unfold: He would go to college and study something he found interesting, graduate, and get a decent job. For a while, things went pretty much according to plan. Stacks, who now is 27, went to the University of Virginia, not far from where he grew up, majoring in American Studies. He later enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, with the eventual goal of becoming a professor.

Flash forward to the fall of 2008, when the stock market crashed. There were never enough jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s to begin with, and now the likelihood of landing a tenure-track teaching position in the humanities was slim. Academia stopped looking like such a sure bet and Stacks grew disenchanted with his program. Even if he were to finish his doctorate, he reasoned, a job was in no way guaranteed to follow. He wondered, “How bad could it really be out there?” Turns out, it’s pretty bad.

So, in May of 2009, equipped with a master’s degree and a decent amount of courage, Stacks changed course. Shortly after graduation, he moved back in with his mother, who lives in Chantilly, Virginia. And from a desk in his bedroom, still littered with childhood toys and posters, Stacks started over.

What confronted him was not exactly pleasant. What once thrilled him—curating museum exhibits, making comic books, being a curious person—now seemed to make little financial sense. “I’m not confident that schooling has a direct connection with employment anymore,” he says. “But if I hadn’t received the kind of education I did, I would be less of an active citizen and less engaged in the world in ways I would not have discovered on my own.” And while passion and intellectual curiosity can’t be measured in dollars and cents, he expected they might at least secure a paycheck.


Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Labor Market Studies, has discovered that many college graduates are falling back on jobs that don’t require a college degree: waiting tables, bartending, working in retail. Using federal labor statistics, Sum has found that of the more than 2 million college graduates under the age of 25, about 700,000 have a job that doesn’t require a degree. And while unemployment and the lack of full-time jobs are problems, Sum says that having a job for which one is overqualified is worse. People with a job that does not require a degree—even if they have one—earn up to 40 percent less than college graduates whose jobs require their schooling. What’s worse, the longer one spends in a non-degree job, the less likely one is to ever join the college-educated labor force.

And the economic effects aren’t temporary. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale’s School of Management, tracked the wages of white men who graduated from college before, during, and after the 1980s recession. Over a 20-year period, those who graduated in the peak of the recession earned $100,000 less than those who finished college before or after the economic downturn.

“Young college graduates are vastly underutilized. They go ahead and complete school and we don’t have anything to offer them once they’re out,” says Sum, referring to the young college graduates who are without work. In the more than 20 years that he’s been studying the issue, Sum says that the current downturn has negatively affected young people the most—and not just in terms of their take-home pay. For some people, the recession has forever altered perceptions of how the world works, creating the impression that success has more to do with luck than with hard work.

For Stacks in particular, the most severe toll hasn’t been a loss of income, but feelings of estrangement and isolation. It’s fair to say that Stacks doesn’t exactly have a lot in common with his coworkers. Many are still in high school. Most of the older ones haven’t gone to college. In general, Stacks veers away from conversations about his education or the number of degrees he has acquired, worried that they’ll think less of him because of it—or worse, think that he thinks he’s better than they are.

Despite his best efforts, the details of his past life have slowly seeped out. “People kept asking me, ‘If you have a master’s degree and you went to UVA, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be somewhere else? Shouldn’t you be more successful than you are?’” The answers don’t come easily. “My younger coworkers want my advice but they think my advice probably isn’t worth that much since we ended up in the exact same place and they don’t have a college education, let alone a master’s.”

This is a must-read, so go over to Good and read it in its entirety. Meanwhile, thousands of students unwilling to imagine that this will likely be their future in four years, continue to flood for-profit colleges and TTT law schools at $30k yearly tuition. This situation is like an ongoing nightmare that will never end.

Have a Happy Halloween.


  1. Angel, hardknocks, go over to the Chronicle of Higher Education fora and look at the topics in Careers - In the Classroom.

    Read post after post about students who plagiarize, whine, wheedle, complain, institute grade appeals, and ask questions so stupid that the mind boggles. These are today's COLLEGE students. They'll eventually have BAs or BSs, even if it takes them 7-8 years to graduate, because more and more colleges - even private ones - are "student-centered." That means they let students pass courses when those students shouldn't have even been admitted in the first place.

    After they graduate, these pampered little darlings who slept through classes and "wrote" research papers by copying and pasting from Wikipedia will wonder why they can't get a job. They might even say, "But I did everything right!" But they didn't.

    A substantial number of college students do not belong in college and should not be allowed to graduate. The problem isn't just with the colleges and pathetic state of American K-12 education - it's also with the students themselves (and, to be fair, their relentelessly self-esteem-boosting parents).

    Getting a degree isn't even half the battle. To compete in today's job market, you also have to be responsible and self-motivated, you have to be presentable, and you have to be able to actually do your job for a few hours in a row without constantly checking your email and texting all your pals about how boring your job is when you should have started as the assistant to the CEO and pulling down six figures. The concept of paying dues is alien to the current and recent crops of graduates.

    And those students, who are being given degrees for doing less than shit for 4-7 years, aren't going to be any better situated than the dopes who attend TTT law schools because they think it's a way to make a lot of money.

    The only difference will be in the magnitude of the debt the two groups carry.

  2. It isn't only the 'for profit' schools that are running this scam. All of the universities, from the Ivys to State U, are in on it. The tenured profs and especially the administrators make big bucks off the fools who believe the hype. Why should they care if people face a lifetime of debt slavery? They've got theirs.

  3. Poor Luke. He somehow didn't realize that a degree in [any kind of] 'Studies' is worthless. I hope he partied a lot- memories are all he gained from college.

  4. They are doing exactly what my old non-profit state university does, just doing it better.

    "Non-profits"... PROFIT. Don't let the schools scapegoat these companies- they are ALL doing this, especially in certain departments.

  5. To the Anonymous first commentator: It might be worse than you think. Now even people with Down Syndrome and other forms of mental retardation can go to college!

  6. Here's my sad, sordid summary:
    BA (University of California)
    MA (USC)
    JD (California Western Law School)
    *law review; graduated in two years; passed CA Bar on first attempt
    !massive student loan debts and default
    !two Chapter 7 bankruptcies
    !20 years of poverty/near-poverty

  7. You really ought to read Real Education by Charles Murray. I know Murray isn't politically correct, but his ideas of certification rather than degrees are absolutely brilliant.

    More scam bloggers need to start advocating for certification as a way of assessing job qualification.

    But, as usual, the Supreme Court will probably get in the way. Griggs v. Duke Power and Light is one of the most insidious causes of the problems you're blogging about. Because of that case, employers started requiring college degrees because they were forbidden from handing out IQ tests. Nobody went into massive debt from taking an freaking IQ test. Thanks, Supreme Court.

  8. To Frank: I believe those cases are relatively rare and are probably part of the "nothing's more important than self-esteem" movement rather than an attempt to educate them to the point of competing with the average graduate for jobs.

    What's more disturbing is the number of college students who have been receiving accommodations for years because of so-called attentional disorders. They may get an extra three hours to take a one-hour exam in college - but it's not going to work that way in most jobs. A lot of grads are in for a rude awakening.

    And another thumbs-up for Charles Murray's book. (Political correctness bears a lot of the responsibility for our wretched educational system.)

  9. ABA Journal: "A Solo’s Practice Expands from a Spare Bedroom to the Supreme Court"

    Please comment on this amazing story!

  10. I think the first commenter has a warped perception of the problem by taking extreme examples as representatives of the entire group.

    Today, kids who graduate from very good schools - who "belonged" in college - and do very well there are having an extremely hard time finding employment that justifies the tuition.

    The single biggest problem is that a college degree - a B.A., specifically - was never supposed to be a general "I'm qualified" card to take work. But then professional schools started requiring a B.A. and some jackass started publishing that stupid, highly-misleading chart that B.A.'s make x% more money than non-B.A.s. So 60s egalitarianism takes over and a generation of suit-wearing hippies decided to tell students that to get rich, go to college. And so companies, needing a way to differentiate between applicants, decided to require a B.A. and do away with their own training programs to save money. And then going to college became a sort-of right and the government decided to backstop loans so everyone could go to college.

    In retrospect, it took a lot of seriously-stupid decisions to lead to our present mess, but that's how clusterfucks go. The fact that some mentally-deficient, illiterate, or downright stupid people graduate with degrees is just a small, small part of the problem. The education and labor system in the United States is broken, and it needs serious reform: either by government or capitalists (like ones who get smart and start snapping up highly-qualified high school graduates who could be accepted to places like Stanford or Duke to develop them internally).

  11. The videos were interesting.

    Two random observations though,

    1. The lady in the second (third?) video who went into 30k in debt doesn't really seem that worse off. Her house looked nice, and she and her daughters had at least two little pets. Now, I'm not saying she should be living in a van or whatever, but she clearly wasn't not in poverty.

    2. I'm sure the narrator is a perfectly nice guy, but seriously, he sounded like a freakin' robot. It's as if I was listening to one of those cheesy animation vids they post on the youtube.

  12. "I think the first commenter has a warped perception of the problem by taking extreme examples as representatives of the entire group."

    Seems to me that you're the one taking the extreme examples: the "kids who graduate from very good schools." *Very* good schools? There are over 4,000 two- and four-year degree-granting institutions in the U.S. Do you really think that the "very good schools" make up the majority of them? Or even 51% of them?

    The fact that grads of good schools - say, the top 250 four-year colleges out of the 2,500+ that exist - are having trouble getting jobs doesn't undermine my point; it supports it. There are thousands of students in college who belong there and tens of thousands who don't. They're all having trouble finding jobs, and they're all going to end up saying, "But I did everything right!"

    The especially bad news for the ones who go to good schools - or even mediocre schools - and work hard and do well is that their degrees are being devalued because so many people who do not belong in college are nevertheless getting degrees. It's not an achievement that requires much of a brain any more.

  13. ...yes, except going to a top 20 US News & World Report university and graduating with honors would be "doing everything right," wouldn't it?

    And the fact that some of those elite students cannot find jobs after graduation has no real connection with the number of graduates, does it? Any H.R. person worth their salt can distinguish between a Cornell (or Duke or Cal or Vanderbilt, etc.) magna cum laude grad and a median grad from Southeast Louisiana Technical State. Going to Cornell and graduating magna cum laude IS an achievement that requires both work and a brain.

    Your point in the first post seemed to argue for a problem with the students themselves with respect to their perceptions, e.g., a kid from SE LA Tech State thinking they should make 60k out of undergrad that they didn't really excel in. And you seem to be focusing on the amount of college graduates as to why none of their degrees are worth anything.

    But that's only partly true. Even if we removed 1000 of those schools, you'd have the exact same problem of kids from schools like Cornell who did well - who did "do everything right" - not finding employment to justify their student loans or the cost of tuition.

    That is why the problem runs so much deeper than students thinking, improperly, that they did everything right. Because people who do have accomplishments that took serious work ethic and commitment and brainpower are also getting systematically screwed. Degree devaluation is only part of the problem.

  14. "Your point in the first post seemed to argue for a problem with the students themselves with respect to their perceptions, e.g., a kid from SE LA Tech State thinking they should make 60k out of undergrad that they didn't really excel in. And you seem to be focusing on the amount of college graduates as to why none of their degrees are worth anything.

    But that's only partly true. Even if we removed 1000 of those schools, you'd have the exact same problem of kids from schools like Cornell who did well - who did "do everything right" - not finding employment to justify their student loans or the cost of tuition."

    Actually, a lot of kids these days think they deserve 60k out of college. I remember reading an article a year or so ago on Yahoo News where they asked high school juniors how much they expected to make mid career. The average consensus among boys was about 160k and for girls it was like 120k. I would say high school juniors have some sense of the world and having expectations like that are just way out of whack.

    As far as removing 1000 schools, I think if you remove students who don't belong at college, then at least you don't have to worry about all these students in tons of debt. And they can put their skills to other uses like learning a skilled trade or working a manual labor job. Or whatever their abilities can support.

  15. Now I'm glad I never went to college. Well, I almost earned enough credits for an AA.Sure, post economic collapse I could have been pulling down a hefty professional income and had all the toys, and luxuries a big income affords. And then I could have faced the monetary devastation expressed on this blog and others. Instead I used my under 30-$60K income to buy a studio condo outright, pay off debt and learn skills that could make a paltry sum without being dependent on any employer.

    So for the cost of a masters degree, I have security in housing, owe anyone very little and have a lot of free time to enjoy life, not stuff.

    The one thing I do not understand is how the masses do not see that capitalism as the US practices it, is unsustainable in the long term. Leaving your citizens out in the cold, regardless of education and past paycheck, is inhumane. That said, living within your means used to be what our grandma and grandpa did. It was a mark of pride to not have debt, then everything changed. This is the cost of living beyond.

  16. Re: profit versus nonprofit, I submit this paraphrase of a very short dialogue from our law school faculty list a week or so ago.

    Professor Goodguy: Hey, there aren't enough jobs for our students. Maybe we should think about reducing admissions for a year or two.

    Professor Whiner: But what would happen to our budget?

    Budget Administrator: It would be reduced because of the reduced tuition revenue.

    ****End of dialogue.

  17. Griggs v. Duke Power Company is nothing as the commentor above says. It prevented companies from using tests that had nothing to do with job performance, and the case proved that it didn't. Tests that actually correlate with later job performance are still legal.

    Before Griggs v. Duke Power Company, African Americans were barred from attending High School in that state. When integration was on the table, the state basically closed all the public schools rather than have precious white children have to integrate with blacks, so students only went to private schools. The problem is that blacks could not afford private schools! So they went from segregated schools to having no HS education available to them.

    Duke Power Company gave employees totally unrelated tests on subjects like, say, 12th grade History class, that were shown to not correlate with how well they did their manual labor jobs.

    I repeat, it is legal to offer tests for positions, as long as there is documentation that the results correlate with improved job performance, and not a pretext to keep oppressed minority groups out of the positions.

    Even a honky like me can hear your racist dogwhistles.



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