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Published: Jun 12, 2024 10 min read
Photo-illustration of a notebook page with doodles, and a student on laptop.
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Getting a good job is one of the top reasons students go to college. It may be surprising, then, just how many recent graduates struggle when it comes time to land that gig.

As many as half of recent graduates are underemployed one year after leaving school, research from the Burning Glass Institute found in a widely-circulated report from earlier this year. That means after four (or more) years of classes, one in every two grads winds up working in a job that doesn't require a bachelor's degree.

"That doesn't feel normal. That feels really high," says Carlo Salerno, the institute's managing director of education insights. "And it suggests a big problem. It also suggests a rather structural problem."

Colleges have a responsibility in helping to solve that problem. But students have a role to play, too. Picking the right college and making the most of the opportunity can help you graduate into a decent-paying job and avoid getting stuck in underemployment. Here are some tips from experts:

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Choose a college that opens doors

While many college graduates are struggling with underemployment, some colleges do a much better job than others on job placement and earnings.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, included in Money’s Best Colleges ratings, shows the share of alumni who are earning more than a high school graduate six years after starting. Students can use data like this as they compare universities to find a college that checks the right boxes.

Schools also publicize their own data on job placement, but take what you see in brochures with a grain of salt, says Rebekah Paré, a consultant who works with universities on career services. Universities often misrepresent this information to attract students. Instead, she says to focus on things like what the school is doing to create internship opportunities. Ask what sort of places current students are interning at, and whether there are stipends to offset the expenses of unpaid (or low-paid) internships.

"Investigate how important career preparation is for the institution,” Paré says. “Is it lip service or integrated into the institution’s strategic plan?”

Develop in-demand skills

People attend college for a variety of reasons, including exploring new interests and pursuing passions. But at today's prices, most Americans don't have the luxury of learning for the sake of it. Job skills are something students need to be thinking about from the get-go.

Right now, quantitative skills are in high demand among employers, and the fields with the lowest underemployment include computer science, engineering and mathematics, according to the Burning Glass Institute report.

That may not last forever, however. In recent years, more students have pursued majors in some of these higher-paying fields, increasing competition for those jobs after graduation. Also, tech companies aren’t recruiting nearly as much as they had been: Tech job listings for recent grads are down 30% compared to a year ago, according to Handshake data.

Kiersten Post, a senior recruiter at Gartner, says employers want job applicants to demonstrate that they're passionate about the field they're pursuing and have developed skills in college that will translate to the workplace. For example, she’s recruited a number of students who have complimented a humanities background with quantitative skills by adding a data analytics or business analytics minor.

"There are some studies that tell you a STEM-focused degree is going to get you more job opportunities, but that's not to say if you do something different — more of a liberal arts major — that you can't find opportunities," she says. "It’s about how you spin your experiences, the extracurriculars that you surround yourself and the networking that you do."

Chelsea Mellenthin, director for career engagement at the University of North Dakota, agrees that students should find their passion and build skills around it rather than chase a high-paying job in a random field.

“Then it’s finding that internship or getting involved in a research lab or taking part in a study abroad experience to really round out their education to help make them workforce ready by the time that they graduate,” she says.

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Stand out with internship experience

Employers place a high value on the hands-on experience job applicants gain from internships while they’re in college, and data shows this makes a major impact in career outcomes.

Students who’ve had at least one internship are much less likely to be underemployed, according to the Burning Glass data. The chances of underemployment are 48.5% lower compared to someone who didn’t complete an internship.

Perhaps surprisingly, GPA doesn't matter nearly as much as it used to, says Mary Gatta, director of research and public policy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Less than 40% of employers are screening candidates by GPA, down from about 73% in 2019, she says.

As GPA has gotten less important, real-world experience has gotten more: NACE’s data shows that internships are the second most important criteria for employers behind the academic major.

Internships can turn into full-time jobs. But they're critical even if you don't leave with a job offer in hand. Adding an internship to your resume makes a big difference in the eyes of hiring managers, and the experience can be helpful for developing professionalism and workplace communication skills (a.k.a. “soft skills”) that employers want more of from today’s students, Gatta says. Plus, the professionals you worked closely with during your internship can make for great references.

At the University of New Hampshire, 75% of students complete at least one internship. That figure is made possible by the university’s work building employer relationships to create many of these opportunities, according to Gretchen Heaton, associate vice provost for career and professional success. These experiences help their graduates go on to higher-paying professional careers, she says.

“Internships — and I would combine that also with research, so experiential education in general — is absolutely critical to student success. And that's a huge focus of the university,” she says. “Those real life applications of their academic learning are by far the biggest factor that propels their careers forward.”

Commit to the job search early

Recruiters and campus career advisors say that students often make the mistake of waiting until the end of their time in college to search for jobs. Those who commit to the job search and start earlier will have a better chance of securing a good-paying job.

Large companies are increasingly targeting younger students and looking for talent earlier on, Post says. While internships may not be available until junior or senior year at these companies, they often have campus recruiting and career programming for freshmen and sophomores.

“They're really getting those students into the pipeline early on, and then using those professional development programs as feeders into their internship program,” she says. “Students who express interest in a company very early on, it's something that I think companies definitely notice.”

Today's graduates are entering a job market with higher salaries than a year ago, but companies are planning to hire 5.8% fewer workers from the Class of 2024, according to NACE data.

Students pursuing industries that aren’t hiring as aggressively have their work cut out for them, and experts recommend applying to a larger list of opportunities.

Meeting with career advancement staff, networking, researching companies, sending out applications and working on cover letters takes a lot of energy on top of coursework and college life, but it pays off — and not just in your first years post-college.

As the Burning Glass Institute said in its report, “The first job after graduation is critical” because “graduates who start out in a college-level job rarely slide into underemployment.”

And on the flip side: All those recent graduates that the researchers found were underemployed a year after leaving college? Their job prospects didn't simply improve with time. A decade later, 45% still worked in a job that didn't require a four-year degree.

The research underscores that "just getting a student into college is not enough," Salerno says. "Having a bachelor's degree in biology and working as a barista is not what people had in mind when they got that degree to begin with."

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