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More than half of young college graduates are unemployed or underemployed

Commentary by Masao Suzuki |
April 28, 2012
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San José, CA - A new report by the Associated Press confirms what many people already knew: the job market for young college graduates just plain sucks. Pardon my language, but to have more than half (53.6%) of people under 25 with a bachelor’s degree either out of work or doing jobs that only need a high school diploma or even less education is outrageous.

For many years young people have been told that they should go to college to improve their opportunities in life. And it is true that adults who are college graduates do have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates on average than those who did not get a college degree.

But today’s college students are facing a triple whammy of soaring college costs, cutbacks in public schools that make it more difficult to attend and graduate from college and bleak job prospects once they graduate. After accounting for financial aid, as well as government aid in the form of tax credits, the cost of college tuition has risen 87% faster than the overall rate of inflation over the last ten years. This has led to a huge rise in student loan debt, which now totals about $1 trillion and is more than credit card balances, auto loans or any other consumer debt.

Cutbacks in public colleges and universities are forcing students to take longer (and spend more) to complete their degrees, or turn to even more expensive private schools that at least offer a shorter path to graduation. At Sonoma State University (one of the California State University campuses north of the San Jose-San Francisco Bay area), students this spring were allowed to sign for only nine units in the first round of registration, and then there was a second round where few classes were available for the rest of the units. At that rate it would take a student almost seven years to graduate.

Both these trends of higher fees and class cuts can be seen at the College of San Mateo, a community college about half way between San José and San Francisco. Enrollment at CSM fell 10% over the last year as fees went up 40%, a new, stricter payment policy was implemented and class sections cut. The administration there is planning another 5% cut in class sections, and fees are going up another 30% for this coming fall semester. And to add insult to injury, administrators at CSM and the other campuses in its district are phasing in a 20% raise for themselves, even as they say there is no money for more classes.

Last, but not least, there is a just plain terrible job market for new graduates. Of the nearly 3 million young people with college degrees, about a quarter, or 750,000, had no jobs at all. Another 750,000 were underemployed, or working in occupations that didn’t need a college degree, such as food service workers, receptionists, and retail clerks. A sign of these hard times is that a recent poll of college seniors showed that 85% planned to move back home after graduation.
On college campuses across the country, students, with support of progressive faculty and staff and their unions, have been fighting both campus administrators as well as state politicians to limit tuition increases and stop the cutbacks in higher education. But college students and college graduates will need to struggle with the capitalists and their economy to provide more jobs that use their skills.

One reason for the bleak job market is the financial crisis and deep recession brought about by Wall Street’s financing a boom and bust in housing. Studies show that almost all the job losses were in middle-income, semi-skilled jobs that could provide entry-level work for college grads. But the elimination of middle-income jobs did not just start during the last economic downturn.

There is a long term tendency, first described by Karl Marx 150 years ago, for capitalism to deskill jobs with the use of new technology. The government’s Department of Labor estimates that only 10% (3 of 30) of the fastest growing occupations in 2020 will require a college degree, while the other 90% will not.

While right-wing Republicans and those enthralled by or on the payroll of Wall Street call big corporations and the rich “job-creators.” In fact, large U.S. corporations have cut millions of jobs in the United States through the use of technology and off-shoring jobs to other countries. Big business (and capitalism) itself is not about job creation, it is about profit maximization, which often mean cutting jobs and making the remaining workers work even harder. Look at the reaction of Wall Street when a big company announces another round of lay-offs - the company’s stock price goes up, showing that wealthy investors think that the business will be more profitable.

As we build a fightback against tuition increases and even more cuts to education, we also need to demand that the government start a jobs program that puts the millions of unemployed back to work and offers unemployed and underemployed college grads a chance to use their education. Those who see the need for radical change should study the political economy of Marx and other socialists to better understand our capitalist system and the need for a socialist economy that is based on people’s needs, not profit.

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