Why are our College Graduates Unemployed?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Tony Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Jeff Strohl’s new publication: HardTimes: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings, states that unemployment for new BA graduates is “an unacceptable 8.9 percent,” acknowledging that it is an even worse 22.9 percent for recent high school graduates. Their publication showcases the reality that different BA degrees have different unemployment rates, with Architecture among the worst (13.9 percent) and Law and Public Policy among the best (8.1) percent.

But why the high (relatively) unemployment rates for recent graduates?

Here are my four non-empirical suggestions (because I don’t have the data just yet, but will for my upcoming book on this subject):

  1. We produce too many of them. I disagree with Carnevale et al. saying we need more. We don’t. We have plenty. We have so many that we have an 8.9 percent unemployment rate. We don’t’ need more. We need better. If the graduates were of a higher quality, I guarantee that figure would be lower. I’ll bet you $10,000. I think we need more “better,” but not just more.
  2. We produce too many in fields that don’t require more graduates. We have almost no fortifications against over production of graduates in most fields. Believe it or not, we have too many teachers, but not enough that stick around, so we “over produce” because we are so inefficient in our capacity to train personnel and keep them in their jobs. Quite pathetic, actually.
  3. We do not match the skills from a particular BA to the job market. Just because we require a BA doesn’t mean we have matched the skill sets. In fact, with the exception of professional fields (etc., law, accounting, medicine, other health care), we haven’t done this at all. This is almost humorous if it weren’t so brutal. We create degrees; but we don’t truly consider the skill sets we are honing for the job market. This is America’s Achilles Heel and why our higher education system is falling behind: quickly.  
  4. Students are graduating with low skill sets and many are basically unemployable. The truth hurts. Many of our graduates did everything they were asked, but forgot to learn along the way. Jumped hoops, paid bills, went to class. But didn’t learn. Didn’t grow. They essentially “did time.” We call it college. Perhaps it is a type of jail, where students are not only watching their debt grow, but also their opportunity cost. I don’t blame students (necessarily): we set them up for this. We have extraordinarily low expectations for them, and our colleges (the truth still hurts) lower the bar because it would hurt them if they have more dropouts. We talk about passing students along in grade school to get rid of them; we do the same in higher education. We just do not like to admit to it because we are “better than K-12.” Nope. I beg to differ.

There are more reasons, but I’m going to start off the New Year with these.

Happy 2012, everyone. Let’s have a great year. Welcome back.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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5 Responses to Why are our College Graduates Unemployed?

  1. Lua Hancock says:

    Scott-

    While I do not disagree with your comments above, let me add my two pence.
    NACE recently shared a list of what employers are looking for:
    http://www.naceweb.org/s10262011/candidate_skills_employer_qualities/

    Many of these (including teamwork, communication and quantitative skills) are parallel with the learning outcomes of the gen ed curriculum at my small liberal arts institution (and I would guess at many others). Do we do enough to help students connect the dots of their learning in order to be able to coherently sell themselves and their skills?? Some areas (which per-prof degrees prep for) want a technical skills set, but most do not ask for a skill set specific to one major. They want things that I feel my institution does very well through the learning that occurs inside and outside of the classroom on my campus. They are certainly doing more than paying bills and jumping through hoops (although we can always do a better job of streamlining processes). On my campus, we spend a lot of time as educators speaking about student learning and how we are purposefully creating an environment that values liberal learning. I don’t think we are transparent enough about these outcomes with our students and that hurts them in the job market.

    • I also don’t disagree with what you said. Certainly, some colleges, and even some departments, do a great job of this, and liberal arts institutions, the good ones, are known for this. My comments are obviously very general and broad. Point well taken, Lua!

  2. arcsparks says:

    The idea that a diploma, literally that piece of paper, is THE purpose for K-16 is so prevalent in the parent mindset, and allows for minimalist expectations up and down the line….just get the grades and everything will turn out great. A LOT of credible voices like yours are going to need to call out this issue bluntly for an awful long time to get that idea changing. How can we get parents to begin expecting their children to acquire knowledge in a conceptual framework, and skills, like communication and problem-solving, rather than A’s and B’s?

  3. Mark Millen says:

    Looking at points 2 & 3 – since the traditional, public universities are not (yet) truly accountable for graduation or employment outcomes; enrollments are allowed to continue and ‘max’ out class size without regard for the employment outcomes. If this ever happens, traditional universities will need to be mindful of local or national (depending on mission an scope) employment demands so they can ensure reasonable success by their graduates. Some technical colleges who enroll, graduate, and serve smaller markets must remain mindful of this trade off; while you would like to always fill your classes and cohorts; there must be a balance between efficiency (or profitability) and the student success in their chosen field.

  4. Klonopin says:

    Pretty simple really.

    I work in the IT field and my job is being outsourced to another country. Many of my friends are finding themselves in the same situation. Big business wants cheap labor and move our IT jobs that pay $80,000 / yr. to where they can pay someone else for $15,000.

    And we wonder why the middle class is disappearing…

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