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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This spring, about one and half million people across the United States are graduating from a four-year college. Most will be looking for a job.

GREENE: And they have reason to expect one. Experts have said countless times, including on this program, that a college education tremendously improves your odds in the job market. But if the experiences of recent graduates are any guide, many will be disappointed.

INSKEEP: A new survey out today tracks college grads since 2006. Just half of them are working full-time.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The recession started in Caitlin Lacour's freshman year at Columbia College, Chicago. By graduation last year...

CAITLIN LACOUR: I thought that I wasn't going to get a job...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LACOUR: ...like many people. But I was happy to, you know, have one part-time job.

LUDDEN: And Lacour feels lucky that it's related to her major in radio production. She does promotions at a radio station. But she earns just $10 an hour. And by the time she had to start payments on her $100,000 in student loans, she realized it would not be nearly enough. Lacour took on a second part-time job, at a shoe store, then a third, also at the radio station.

LACOUR: Like I got addicted to working, pretty much, to where I kind of just like burned myself out. 'Cause I didn't want to have to worry about not being able to pay my loans.

LUDDEN: Those student loans are more than $700 a month. And the only way she can pay them, living rent-free with her parents - a situation that's come to symbolize graduating post-recession.

CLIFF ZUKIN: More come out with debt than come out with jobs.

LUDDEN: Cliff Zukin is with the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. His new study finds six in 10 students take on debt - more than $20,000 on average - even as a lack of jobs leaves them less able to pay it back.

ZUKIN: In the data, there's certainly a suggestion that the American Dream has stopped at these guys' doorstep.

LUDDEN: Zukin says nearly half those with full-time work are in jobs that don't actually require a college degree. And as for a career, very few say their first job would lead to that. In fact, a third of recent college grads say they no longer believe education plus hard work will necessarily lead to success.

ZUKIN: They don't even see in the foreseeable future a secure job, a comfortable income, starting a family, and even more - 45 percent - do not see owning a home at any point in the near future.

LUDDEN: And Zukin notes these are the cream of the crop. Unemployment is far higher among the majority of young Americans who don't go to college. The Rutgers study finds a fifth of recent grads have gone back to school, where many are accumulating more debt. Meantime, those getting jobs since the recession have seen a hit on their paychecks.

TILL VON WACHTER: About 10 percent lower earnings. And that earnings effect fades in about 10 years.

LUDDEN: Although it varies, says Columbia University economist Till von Wachter. If you're, say, an engineering grad from a top school, his research shows you can job-hop and get back to what you would have been earning in three or four years. But...

WACHTER: Students who come from smaller, less well-known schools and have majors such as humanities or arts, they tend to have depressed career paths lasting for a very long time.

LUDDEN: And in fact, many grads in the Rutgers survey say they wished they'd majored in something else.

Researcher Cliff Zukin wonders if it's the end of the happy, self-confident millennials, as we've come to know them. Then again, it can be more depressing to read the study's numbers than to speak with some recent grads.

TIFFANY CONNER: I love the people I work with. I love my customers. I'm a people person.

LUDDEN: Tiffany Conner's working two part-time retail jobs in Wisconsin, by choice. After graduating in 2009, she actually landed a full-time job in her field of marketing. But it didn't make her happy. So she quit and moved back in with her parents to figure out something new. Conner's focus now is paying down student loan and credit card debt.

CONNER: You know, debt is just one of those pieces of life, and being miserable about it isn't good either. So keep my head up high, I guess. Keep plugging away and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: After all, she knows she has plenty of company.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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