As the mother of a child who is finishing his junior year in high school, I am, like many parents in my shoes, in the throws of anxiety about where my son will go to college in 2015. Occasionally, between obsessing about his slipping grades in pre-calculus and Spanish and trying to figure out whether a school like University of Chicago should be on our “target” or “reach” list, I get a fleeting but deep pit in my stomach about a much more serious issue: where, and more importantly if, he will find a job when he finally gets his degree.
Then last week I received a report from consulting firm McKinsey, done together with student website Chegg, which is making that pit in my stomach deeper. In October and November of last year McKinsey surveyed 4,900 former Chegg customers, a mix of young people who went to private, public, vocational and for-profit institutions. The findings are truly sobering. Nearly half of grads from four-year colleges are working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. A striking sub-fact: grads from public universities are 11% more likely to feel overqualified than those who went to private schools. I would have thought it would be the other way around. The study cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics number that underlines the McKinsey findings: 48% of employed U.S. college grads are in jobs that require less than a four-year degree.
Even more chilling than those numbers is a figure I read some time ago that I can’t get out of my head: In 2011, 1.5 million, or 53.6% of college grads under age 25 were out of work or underemployed, according to a 2012 Associated Press story that used an analysis of the U.S. government’s 2011 Current Population Survey data by Northeastern University researchers, plus material from Drexel University economist Paul Harrington, and analysis from liberal Washington, D.C. think tank, the Economic Policy Institute.
If only my son were a STEM kid, meaning that he were interested in science, technology, engineering or math. The McKinsey study says that 75% of those grads are in jobs requiring a four-year degree. Instead my child will be at the bottom of the bar graph, just two slots up from visual and performing arts, where only 43% are in jobs requiring a four-year degree. He is likely to graduate with a social science degree, where only 54% have jobs that require a four-year diploma.
Another frightening statistic from the McKinsey report: A third of grads don’t feel that college prepared them well for the world of work. Again, the visual and performing arts students are faring the worst: 42% feel that college didn’t prep them for employment, followed closely by social science grads, at 36%.
But thank goodness for one ray of light in this study: 77% of graduates of the top 100 four-year programs (based on the U.S. News and World Report rankings) who worked part-time, did internships or employee mentorships felt prepared for work, compared with 59% who lacked such experience. Still, they may have felt prepared but it’s not clear they got hired. An Accenture poll I wrote about earlier this month shows that while 72% of 2011/2012 grads had done internships, only 42% said the internships led to jobs.
Then comes what may be the most depressing part of the survey, headlined “regrets.” Half of grads say they would choose a different major or school if they could do their education over. It’s not surprising that the visual and performing arts majors have the most regrets, with 47% saying they would study something else given the chance. For social science majors, it’s 39%.
Yet more sobering news that I fear will affect my son: 40% of grads from the nation’s top 100 colleges couldn’t find jobs in their chosen field. In this measurement, social science grads are at the very bottom. Only 36% are working in their field of choice. Visual and performing arts grads are doing better, at 42%. At least there is a consolation prize if my kid gets into a top 100 school: He will earn 17%-19% more than students from other schools.
But back to more depressing news: Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned. Since there are 1.7 million grads who are getting bachelor’s degrees this year, that means 120,000 young people are working as waiters, Gap salespeople, and baristas because it was the only work they could find.
I talked to Andre Dua, a McKinsey director who co-leads the firm’s education practice in North America, in hopes of finding a shred of encouraging news for my would-be liberal arts graduate. Will the employment outlook be as dim five years from now? At first Dua demurred, saying “your career prospects are highly variable depending on where you go and what you studied on the one hand, and what you do to prepare yourself on the other hand.” In other words, if you’re a STEM kid who does lots of internships, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re a liberal arts kid, not so much.
Dua made the interesting observation that university leaders and boards of directors are lavishing attention on digital instruction, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), while virtually ignoring the fact that masses of students are working in jobs that they say don’t require a degree. The solution, says Dua: Find a way to teach “soft skills” like how to work effectively in teams, under pressure and with clients and customers.
Though the economy may be improving, he notes, my son will probably face a tough job market when (let’s hope!) he graduates five years from now. “There’s no reason to believe that it’s going to go back to the time when it’s simply enough to have a degree,” says Dua. “We’ve entered a time when it’s necessary to have competencies in addition to the credential of a degree.”