When I graduated college two years ago, I knew that I faced an uphill battle to employment. The country’s “Yes We Can” attitude had died off. The Great Recession lagged on. Exactly one of my friends had a paid, full time, non-internship job lined up after graduation. Even so, I imagined slicing through the sea of job applicants with my four-year degree. I worked hard and didn’t take “no” for an answer. Every Irish immigrant story told to me by my grandpa promised that these two qualities—plus a college education— would take me far.
But Grandpa didn’t know that in today’s economy, a college education is the bare minimum employers require. In fact, they assume something is wrong with you if don’t go to college. Yet unlike a high school diploma, which was the baseline for previous generations, a college degree comes with a price tag—and a hair-raisingly high one at that. Millions of Americans simply cannot afford the cost of college today.
I lost my wide-eyed optimism real quick. As The New York Times recently noted, more and more employers expect employees to have a four year degree for entry-level positions. At one law firm in Atlanta, for example, even the “office runner”—the courier who ferries documents to and from the courthouse at $10 an hour—has graduated from a four year college. It sounds like the punch line of a joke! Employers can afford to be choosy when a single job opening attracts hundreds of desperate and over-qualified applicants. Minimum education and experience requirements make the hiring process more manageable. Consequently, the college degree has become the new high school diploma.
Having been rejected from positions that historically required only a high school diploma, college graduates of all ages have clocked in at minimum wage jobs to survive. In 2012, 70% more college grads earned minimum wage than one decade ago. This trend has long-reaching effects. In order to attain the basic requirements for entry-level work, students feel forced to attend college. In fact, more Americans go to college now than ever before. Only 49% of high school students enrolled in two- or four-year colleges in 1980, while more than 70% enrolled in 2009. As much as I support these sky-rocketing statistics, I worry about the $1.2 trillion in student loans that make those statistics possible.
As soon as a college grad tosses her cap into the air, the clock starts ticking on student loans. Most graduates need jobs, ASAP, to pay off the debt. Instead of risking unemployment for six months whilst competing for entry-level office jobs (such as “office runner”), many grads turn to minimum wage jobs in the retail and food service industry. They may only make $9 an hour, but grads can at least chip away at their mountain of student debt.
Unfortunately, when the person pouring your coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts has a college degree, the assumption becomes that everyone goes to college. Without access to the jobs made possible by a college degree, they are trapped in poverty as a result.