Congrats on your college degree! Hope you weren't expecting a full-time job.

On America's broken promise to college graduates

A recent college graduate.
(Image credit: Illustrated | miscellany/Alamy Stock Photo, David Davis Photoproductions RF/Alamy Stock Photo)

Many hundreds of thousands of young Americans are on the cusp of graduating from college. What sort of job prospects await them?

Sadly, it's not great, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explains in a new paper.

For Americans age 21 to 24 who have a bachelor's degree, and who aren't enrolled in further schooling, the unemployment rate is back down to where it was before the 2008 collapse — around 5.3 percent. On its face, that sounds pretty good! (It's represented by the light blue line in the graph below.) But as EPI points out, there are lots of reasons to view the post-2001 business cycle as a pretty shoddy baseline. The damage from that downturn had not yet been undone when the Great Recession hit.

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A better baseline is the boom time of the late 1990s, when unemployment for this cohort got down to 4.3 percent.

More telling still is the underemployment rate (the dark blue line above). This doesn't just include the officially unemployed. It includes people who are employed part-time but who want to be employed full-time and just can't find the work.

It also includes people who have looked for work in the last year as well as just in the last month. Only the latter are counted in the official unemployment rate. That's significant, since the hiring rate for Americans who haven't looked for jobs in the last month is higher than it's been in decades. A bad enough economic crash can throw people out of the job search game entirely, which in turn throws off the unemployment rate. In that case, the economy is not as healthy as a low unemployment rate suggests.

Sure enough, underemployment for recent college graduates remains significantly higher than it was in 2007. And it's a lot higher than it was in the late 1990s.

The gender and race breakdowns are telling, too.

Unemployment for white recent college grads is almost back down to where it was in 2000. For black Americans in this cohort, however, unemployment remains 2.5 percentage points above 2000 levels. Hispanics and Asian Americans face smaller gaps than blacks, but larger than whites.

Unemployment for women in this cohort is just 0.5 percentage points above its 2000 rate, while still 1.5 percentage points above the rate for men. But that doesn't necessarily mean the economy is performing better for recent female grads: Their lower unemployment rate is largely due to lower labor force participation overall. (In other words, more recent female grads who aren't employed haven't looked for work in the last month.)

Furthermore, underemployment rates for men and women in this group remain significantly higher than in 2000, and by roughly similar margins. And while the underemployment gap for all races is higher than the unemployment gap, the differences in the underemployment gaps between races mirror the unemployment numbers.

Remember too that a lot of recent college grads have to take jobs that don't actually require a college degree. This happened even in the late '90s boom: Among college grads age 22 to 27 who were employed in 2000, 38.3 percent had jobs that didn't require their education level.

That number got all the way up to 46.3 percent just after 2008, and was still 42.5 percent as of March of this year. Other research confirms the trend.

In a bit of good news, pay for Americans age 21 to 24 with a college degree is higher today than it was in 2000. But just barely: It's been virtually stagnant ever since the 2001 recession, and dipped noticeably after 2008. Young Americans entering the workforce are only just beginning to make up almost two decades of lost ground.

Then there are the gender and race gaps.

Pay for women in this cohort only barely increased since 2000. Pay for men increased a bit more, meaning the gender gap in pay for recent college grads actually grew over this time period. Even worse, pay for black Americans in this cohort collapsed by almost 17 percent over the last 18 years, after briefly achieving parity in 2000. The black-white wage gap among recent college grads exploded over this period. That's consistent with other evidence on the way the Great Recession devastated black communities specifically.

Quite often, skeptics explain away wage and employment gaps between genders and races by suggesting differences in skill, or differences in life path choices. But here we have those same gaps reappearing within the same education level, and among people at roughly the same point in their careers. As EPI notes, it's hard to attribute that outcome to anything other than raw discrimination against women and minorities.

New college graduates certainly aren't the least fortunate Americans. But their situation sheds some useful light on the ways the American economy is still very much broken. And if it's not working for them, it's going to be even worse for others.

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