The unem­ploy­ment rate for recent col­lege grad­u­ates is high­er than the gen­er­al pub­lic’s. Here’s how to avoid join­ing that major­i­ty.


5 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.


It has long been the case sta­tis­ti­cal­ly that those who earned a uni­ver­si­ty degree made more mon­ey over their life­time than indi­vid­u­als who did not com­plete col­lege. For the most part, col­lege was one of the best invest­ments of time, ener­gy and mon­ey a young pro­fes­sion­al could make. Today, how­ev­er, that is becom­ing less and less the case.

Part of the rea­son for the dimin­ish­ing return is the mete­oric rise of col­lege tuition prices. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics (NCES) and adjust­ed for infla­tion, the cost of tuition from 1995-’96 to 2016-’17 rose 178 per­cent at pub­lic four-year insti­tu­tions and 157 per­cent at pri­vate four-year insti­tu­tions. At two-year schools, tuition dur­ing this same time has risen over 124 per­cent. 

Accord­ing to the NCES, dur­ing the 2016-’17 aca­d­e­m­ic year, the per-year cost for under­grad­u­ate tuition, fees, room and board was just over $17,200 at pub­lic insti­tu­tions, $44,500 at pri­vate non­prof­it insti­tu­tions and $25,400 at pri­vate for-prof­it insti­tu­tions.

The stats were not much bet­ter for grad­u­ate schools. In just the 10 years from 2007-’08 to 2017-’18, the cost of tuition of a master’s degree rose 45 per­cent in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and 16 per­cent in pri­vate insti­tu­tions, accord­ing to CollegeBoard.org

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the New York Fed­er­al Reserve recent­ly report­ed that the unem­ploy­ment rate for recent col­lege grad­u­ates is now slight­ly high­er than the gen­er­al pub­lic, some­thing that has not hap­pened in decades. For those recent grad­u­ates who have been able to find employ­ment, two out of five are employed in posi­tions that do not require a col­lege degree and earn an aver­age of $25,000. 

Relat­ed: Top 25 Best Grad­u­ate Pro­grams for Entre­prenuers in 2020

This trend does not seem to be chang­ing soon. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, the U.S. econ­o­my is esti­mat­ed to con­tin­ue cre­at­ing these low­er-pay­ing jobs that do not require a degree, with the fastest-grow­ing occu­pa­tions fore­cast to be those with aver­age salaries from $24,000 to $26,500.

That is not the whole sto­ry, how­ev­er. In fact, there is a sig­nif­i­cant short­age of peo­ple for “new col­lar” busi­ness indus­tries, or those jobs that require non-tra­di­tion­al busi­ness skillsets, such as data ana­lyt­ics, com­put­er sci­ence and engi­neer­ing. Why are so many stu­dents not pur­su­ing these abun­dant and high-paid busi­ness jobs? Sim­ply put, busi­ness schools are not keep­ing up with the rapid­ly evolv­ing cur­ricu­lum needs and, maybe more impor­tant, stu­dents tend to avoid non-tra­di­tion­al and more chal­leng­ing class­es.

So how do young stu­dents — and mid­dle-aged pro­fes­sion­als seek­ing a career change or to “upskill” — get the most of the uni­ver­si­ty expense? Here are a few tips to get the high­est rate of return for your col­lege tuition. 

Find Your Purpose

Before even think­ing about uni­ver­si­ty, stu­dents need a plan. This includes a seri­ous and con­scious effort to iden­ti­fy and under­stand why you want or need to go to school. It starts with a per­son­al vision (pur­pose) and a series of spe­cif­ic and mea­sur­able goals. It is also worth research­ing which skills are need­ed for the job you are seek­ing, then pur­su­ing only those class­es that help you achieve your vision.

And, in the end, if you deter­mine that col­lege is not need­ed, or there are faster and less expen­sive ways to achieve your aca­d­e­m­ic goals, you should con­sid­er them.

Prioritize Experience

More recruiters these days are look­ing for per­ti­nent expe­ri­ence over aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ments. Why? Because what dif­fer­en­ti­ates new grad­u­ates is a proven capa­bil­i­ty to per­form. For young stu­dents or career chang­ers, this can be a frus­trat­ing conun­drum: How do you get expe­ri­ence if nobody is will­ing to hire you?

Seek out jobs and intern­ships dur­ing school that per­tain to your career path over jobs that sim­ply pay well, such as a serv­er in a pop­u­lar tourist area. Under­stand­ably, stu­dents need to pay bills and eat, but real expe­ri­ence will pro­vide longer last­ing ben­e­fits if you are will­ing to make the short-term sac­ri­fice.

Take an Active Role

There is no short­age of col­lege clubs and orga­ni­za­tions avail­able to stu­dents, from the finance club to the mar­ket­ing asso­ci­a­tion to the rock-climb­ing group. The prob­lem is that many stu­dents join groups but nev­er take an active role. They attend meet­ings from time to time, think­ing that hav­ing the club list­ed on a resume will help. In real­i­ty, recruiters look for involve­ment, not mem­ber­ship.

Also, choose your uni­ver­si­ty orga­ni­za­tions wise­ly. Seek out those that offer events, net­works and oppor­tu­ni­ties that con­nect you in your indus­try. And, if a stu­dent group does not offer these oppor­tu­ni­ties, or per­haps does not exist, take a lead­er­ship role and make it hap­pen.

Relat­ed: Top Col­leges and Busi­ness Schools for Entre­pre­neurs

Network, Network, Network

There are few oppor­tu­ni­ties bet­ter than col­lege to build a pro­fes­sion­al net­work. By meet­ing and engag­ing with fac­ul­ty and instruc­tors in your field of inter­est, you can build a list of peo­ple who can pro­mote you and speak to your ini­tia­tive and ambi­tion. Attend recruit­ing and guest speak­er events and make a ded­i­cat­ed effort to meet the indi­vid­u­als per­son­al­ly. After, reach out and con­nect on LinkedIn or send a per­son­al note of grat­i­tude. Great pro­fes­sion­al net­works hap­pen over time, so start build­ing ear­ly.

Final­ly, do not over­look the val­ue of your class­mates. Some­day, your net­work of class­mates, who shared the same expe­ri­ence, will end up being your sup­port sys­tem, whether start­ing a busi­ness and seek­ing a co-founder or sim­ply seek­ing a job. And gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, these peo­ple will end up being friends for life.

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