“What the Fate of One Class of 2011 Says about the Job Market,” an article by Lily Altavena in The New York Times on March 26, 2012, tells a harrowing story about how difficult it is for college grads to find jobs today. The “one class” that the title refers to is the 2011 graduating class of Drew University, a small private university located in suburban Madison, New Jersey.
Altavena and a staff of researchers interviewed 226 of the 309 students who graduated from Drew in 2011 and found that 17% of them are still unemployed. Thirty-nine percent of them had full-time employment. Of those who were working, 25% had found jobs in the recreation and hospitality industries.
Altavena’s article offers more than dry statistics about what happened to Drew graduates. She and her staff took the time to interview individual graduates, who describe the jobs they have found – or not found – since graduating from Drew. Some of these young people are bitterly disappointed at not finding jobs, or at taking service jobs that they never expected to settle for after earning a college degree. Several of the most successful students have taken jobs in companies that are owned by their parents. One student started a successful company of her own.
But the Times story teaches us about more than Drew or its graduates. Drew University is facing a predicament that is shared by dozens of similar American colleges. Drew hovers at a ranking of about 100 in the U.S. News college rankings of American liberal arts colleges.
Although the StraighterLine Blog has often attacked the U.S. News rankings for being arbitrary and of limited value to college applicants, the fact remains that they influence the job prospects of graduates. Even if a Drew grad earned a high GPA of, say, 3.9, he or she is likely to be outranked by graduates of schools like Yale, Princeton or Amherst when the job interviews start. (Of course this is unfair; a hard-working Drew student can emerge with an excellent education. But the hiring world is a cruel place.)
To make the problem more acute, Drew is expensive, costing as much as many colleges and universities that have loftier perceived value and status. Drew faces the same predicament as many other mid-ranked, expensive colleges and universities across America. Now that it is clear that graduates from these schools – and you can learn their names by scanning the middle ranks of those U.S. News rankings – are not getting much return on investment after they graduate, parents will become more reluctant to see their kids enroll in them.
Schools like Drew are already keeping their classes full by offering financial aid to a large number of applicants, and accepting large percentages of students as well. According to U.S. News, Drew accepts a fairly staggering 80.31% of all its applicants. (Williams College, a high-status school that is about the same size as Drew, accepts only 18.72%.)
The question is, how long will middle-tier, high-cost schools like Drew continue to survive?
One possible answer can be found in the comments that readers of the Times article have posted online. One comment comes from a member of Drew’s class of 1970, who writes that back then, most of the members of his class got jobs after graduation and are now millionaires. We might never get back to a place where our economy can offer jobs to all the graduates of institutions like Drew. As the economy recovers, we might get closer. But if that doesn’t happen, middle-tier, expensive colleges are in jeopardy.
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