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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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MARTIN: The recent economic downturn has forced a lot of Americans to reevaluate parts of their financial lives. For some, that has meant rethinking the value of higher education. We're going to spend some time this hour looking into this question. Paying for college is getting more expensive every year. The average tuition at a public four-year university climbed 15 percent in just two years from 2008 to 2010. But a college degree has long been considered a good investment, no matter what you studied. And by and large, that is still true. Americans with college degrees still make, on average, 84 percent more annually than people without them. If you put that in dollar terms, you can say that a college degree is worth about a million dollars over a lifetime. But a study out of Georgetown University released this past week says getting a job in today's tough labor market depends more than ever on what you decided to study in college.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: The labor market demands more specialization. So, the game has changed.

MARTIN: That's Tony Carnevale. He co-authored that study and he's the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown. We reached out to a couple of recent graduates to see what they're experiencing, whether they're feeling optimistic about their job prospects.

TIMOTHY RYAN: My name is Timothy Ryan. I recently graduated from Rowan University with a bachelor's in communications studies.

SANDRA MANTILLA: My name is Sandra Mantilla. And I went to Florida International University. I graduated with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in chemistry.

MARTIN: Biomedical engineering sounds like a fairly promising industry, right? According to Tony Carnevale of Georgetown, it's actually one of the fields that has seen hiring slow during the recession, and those jobs have yet to come back. Sandra has had to adjust her expectations. Here's her story.

MANTILLA: I thought I was going to be in school for four years and then I was going to graduate and get a job. And then I intended to work for a few years and then go back to school to get a master's or a Ph.D.

MARTIN: And what happened?

MANTILLA: I have been applying to jobs. I actually have been looking for work since November last year. I went to several conferences and career fairs at my school. I had a couple of interviews. They all said that they went great but nothing really ever happened with that.

MARTIN: So, when you look back, do you feel, Sandra, like you had enough information to set realistic goals and expectations for yourself after graduation?

MANTILLA: I don't think I did. My parents came over here from Colombia and, you know, they had the American dream. You come here, you go to college, you get a good degree and then you get a good-paying job. And engineering is just one of those careers that looks really good and you expect to get a good job. Because I have done four internships - one with NASA, one with the National Institutes of Health and two others through universities. And I thought that was good enough. It was a little bit hard for me when I was in high school to get the guidance because I was a first-generation college student, so I didn't really have all the information. On top of that, there was a language barrier - I was still learning English. And I really do wish I had done a little bit more research, maybe put college aside for a little bit; work, save up some money and then maybe get some experience, and then afterwards, I would have liked to go to college and get my four-year degree. But it's sad to see that a lot of people that I went to high school with who didn't go to college are doing much better than I am.

MARTIN: How? Is that true?

MANTILLA: Well, because they started immediately after high school, they had been promoted and they didn't get themselves in college loans and all that, so.

MARTIN: What kind of jobs are they working in?

MANTILLA: A lot of them medical assistants, some of them in retail - for example, like, Macy's and then they get themselves into managing positions because of the experience, they've been there for a few years.

MARTIN: So, your course of study and your career path, eventually, if you can get a foot in the door, it would put you into a higher income bracket, I imagine. It's just that in the short term this must be frustrating.

MANTILLA: Yes. That's correct. And it's just sad because, like you said, once you get your foot into the door, and I feel that the only way that one can get their foot in the door is if they know someone, because a lot of the people I went to college with who have gotten jobs is because they know someone in the industry and it's easier for them to get jobs.

MARTIN: It sounds though like you've got a good plan. Are you optimistic about your course of action?

MANTILLA: I'm not very optimistic but my parents and my fiance are. And so whenever I get extremely negative, they are the ones keeping me going. And I just try not to stay still and not do anything. I keep looking every morning. I sign up for job announcements. I get emails. And I keep applying. And, you know, I'm hoping that one day something will come my way.

MARTIN: So, we just heard Sandra Mantilla say that she didn't have a lot of information about the job prospects in her chosen industry. Tony Carnevale says schools themselves need to step up to give students that kind of guidance.

CARNEVALE: The United States really has no counseling apparatus. We have three to four hundred students for every counselor in high school. In college, what's called counseling in the students services and career guidance office, is essentially telling you how many more science courses you need to meet your requirements and what you're required to do get your major. There is no information set that's used by colleges that has anything to do with career prospects and career pathways. We simply don't have that here.

MARTIN: But it's not just the technical or science industries that are more competitive these days. Remember Timothy Ryan from Rowan University?

RYAN: I recently graduated with a bachelor's in communications studies.

MARTIN: Timothy's excited. He thinks it's a growing industry with lots of different job possibilities. But, well, here's Tony Carnevale.

CARNEVALE: Communications degrees generally run these days about 8 percent unemployment. That's relatively high.

MARTIN: And Timothy didn't know that.

RYAN: Wow, absolutely not. To be honest, if I had a time machine, I wouldn't mind going back right now and telling myself think otherwise, no. But, no, I did not know that.

MARTIN: So, maybe Timothy and Sandra would have made different choices about their majors if they'd had more information about those job markets. But never mind the dream job. Many students need to settle for any job in order to start paying off student loans. Timothy may find himself in that category once he gets further into his job search. How much debt do you have?

RYAN: Well, it's funny. I try not to think about it, but I recently looked at it. I owe approximately $41,000 with accrued $2,000 in interest.

MARTIN: Have you gotten financial support from your family? Did they help pay for school or are they helping offset your payments for your student loans?

RYAN: Well, see, my mother's disabled and my father is retired and neither of them had the opportunity to finish college. So, they're, you know, living off their checks from Social Security and that's just enough to get by. And whatever money's left over they put towards other bills and expenses.

MARTIN: Carnevale says there's no question: recent college graduates who have a lot of debt end up making different career decisions than those who don't.

CARNEVALE: We've created two classes of students in America. One is the people who go through entire post-secondary education with no debt. Their parents pay. And then we have a second class of students who are accruing enormous debt and also working very large numbers of hours, which reduces their chances of graduating, and when they do graduate, they carry enormous debt. We know now that that influences their prospects mightily.

MARTIN: There's a new piece of legislation in the works on Capitol Hill that could help solve some of Timothy and Sandra's problems. It's called the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, and it was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Marco Rubio of Florida. The bill would require universities to tell students about their potential future earnings and the debt they may accrue - all that before they start paying for school. Only two states - Virginia and Florida - currently require this kind of reporting to students. Again, here's Tony Carnevale.

CARNEVALE: In the end, the Wyden-Rubio bill is the answer to our problems. The Wyden-Rubio bill would force education institutions to tell students when they sign up for a major what the earnings of people who took that major in that school before had been since they graduated and whether or not they got a job, and even if they got a job in the field in which they studied. It is time in the American education system, given its cost, given the fact that most of us now require it to get a decent job to align it much more carefully with job prospects.

MARTIN: Is there value though to just feeling around as a student, just trying to take a variety of different courses and delaying a decision about a particular career or a particular major to pursue?

CARNEVALE: It is absolutely the prerogative of the young to find their way as best they can and to change their mind. It is an exploratory process in school and in the labor market. But we don't want them feeling their way in the dark.

MARTIN: Because the goal is to help these people get jobs in the end.

CARNEVALE: The goal for any college education especially is to help people live more fully in their time. But you can't live more fully in your time in a market economy if you're living in your parents' basement.

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MARTIN: Both Sandra and Timothy are living with their parents for the time being, trying to buy some time while they look for jobs. And if they can't find one by the time they have to start paying back their loans, they both have the same plan B: put off the job search, take on even more debt by going back to school.

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MARTIN: You can find more details about Timothy Ryan and Sandra Mantilla's stories on our website. There's also more information about Tony Carnevale's study from Georgetown. That's all at npr.org. Coming up, our Sunday Conversation with a man who has reached Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, not once but three times. And then we look at a strange and sometimes fatal disease among children in East Africa.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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