Study Says Many College Students Underemployed After Graduation

A new study reports that nearly half of college graduates are working as sales clerks, waiters, janitors and other jobs that don't require a college degree. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with Dr. Richard Vedder, co-author of the study.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you dig into this latest employment report, the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is roughly half of the national average. But a new report by the nonprofit Center for College Affordability and Productivity says that roughly half of those college graduates who have jobs are now working jobs that don't require a college degree. People with Ph.D.s. are driving taxis and waiting on tables. They are earning much less than expected, and certainly bargained for when they began to rack up college debts. Dr. Richard Vedder co-authored the study. He's also a distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University and joins us from member station WOUB in Athens, Ohio. Dr. Vedder, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD VEDDER: Glad to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand what this means.

VEDDER: Well, it means there's a lot of people that are going to college, I suspect most of them with expectations that upon graduation they will make a pretty good living and live sort of an upper middle-class American life. But instead, a lot of them are getting jobs upon graduation working as bartenders, taxi drivers - a million of them are retail sales clerks, 115,000 of them are janitors. They're getting jobs that I'm fairly certain are less than what they're expected when they began the college experience.

SIMON: What's happened? Did the economy shrink but the number of college graduates grow?

VEDDER: Both things have happened. It is true that the downturn in economic growth in the last several years and the sluggish job growth - some call it the jobless recovery - has aggravated a problem that already existed. But I think the more fundamental long-term problem is that there is simply something of a mismatch between the expectation of students and also the reality of the job markets. We have do have four million retail sales clerks in the United States. These are not very glamorous jobs but there are a lot of them, and those are still growing in number. We have a lot of home health care aides and truck drivers and plumbers and electricians. More and more and more of our 22-year-old young adults have college degrees. They're not all going to get jobs as scientists and managers. Some of them are going to be almost forced by the sheer numbers into these other kind of positions.

SIMON: So, are we talking about millions of Americans, grown-ups, who are still living at home, for example?

VEDDER: That's another implication of this. I find this - as a college professor, I find this with an increasing number of my own former students that they're living with their parents as a way to deal with these financial difficulties. I suspect that some people are delaying marriage, for example, probably delaying having children. So, there is all sorts of secondary implications, I think, of this.

SIMON: Do the findings differ according to what you majored in or, you know, engineering versus philosophy?

VEDDER: It did. For example, if you look at in the middle of the career of someone, say, 15 years out after graduation, the typical earnings of an engineer is pretty close to $100,000 a year. The same is true of my field of economics. But if you were to go to teaching or social work, the figure is more likely $50,000 a year.

SIMON: Dr. Vedder, without getting you into trouble, you're a professor of economics. Does this lead you to ever tell your students you're wasting your money here?

VEDDER: Well, you've asked a delicate question, Scott, but I am at the age where I am tenured and semi-retired, so I guess I can say anything I want. I've tried to be honest with my students and I tell my students that there are risks in anything one does in life and any kind of investment one makes in life. And colleges are subject to the same kind of risks that investing in, say, stocks and bonds. Part of the risk, of course, is that 45 percent of those who enter college don't graduate within six years. And students who think they can major in social work then go get a fancy job and then live in an upper middle-class suburb are perhaps living a life that's devoid of much reality these days. And so I point this out to them. I don't tell them don't go to college, but I tell them there are risks associated with it and be cautious about piling up a lot of debt.

SIMON: Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He's also distinguished professor economics emeritus at Ohio University. Thanks so much.

VEDDER: Glad to be with you, Scott.

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