College: Who’s going, finishing and finding work afterwards

The job hunt for recent college grads has improved since the Great Recession , but unemployment is still more common than in 1990 or 2000.

The job hunt for recent college grads has improved since the Great Recession , but unemployment is still more common than in 1990 or 2000.

By Andi Egbert, Sr. Research Associate

College: Who's going, finishing and finding work afterwards

The manicured greens on the college quads have largely emptied out, as another batch of hopeful graduates has earned their degrees. Which makes it a good time to consider key trends impacting the college experience: Who’s going, who’s graduating, and what sort of labor market are grads entering after tossing their mortarboards in the air?

Here are five findings that will bring you up to speed with today’s trends in college and beyond.

1. College enrollment: Despite notable progress, large racial and income gaps remain.

With just 56 percent continuing their studies, Black high school graduates are least likely to immediately enroll in college, while Asian students are most likely (87%). A similar share of White and Hispanic students enrolls in college, about 7 in 10. Hispanic enrollment has improved by more than 20 percentage points since 2000—when fewer than half of graduating high-schoolers entered college.


In another win for more equitable access, low-income high school graduates (from families with incomes in the bottom fifth) are also more likely to enroll in college now than any time in the past 20 years. With two-thirds pursuing post-secondary education, they are tied with middle-income students. But high school grads from the highest-income families still maintain a considerable lead over both groups—as more than 8 in 10 of these high school grads (in the top fifth of family income) immediately head to college.

2. Getting a bachelor’s degree in four years (or six) is still an elusive goal for many undergrads.

The proportion of college students graduating within six years from a four-year institution has been flat in recent years. Overall, only 6 in 10 students who enrolled in 2009 had a diploma in hand by 2015. The ratio falls to just 4 in 10 American Indian and Black students who graduate within six years. Those who drop out of college often face the financial burden of student loans without the earnings and employment advantages conferred on those who graduated.


3. The job hunt for recent college grads has improved since the Great Recession, but unemployment is still more common than in 1990 or 2000.

In 2009-10, in the teeth of the recession, recent college grads in their early 20s experienced unemployment rates of nearly 7%—more than twice as high as those faced by their counterparts in 1990 and 2000. More recently the unemployment rate for newly-minted college grads has fallen back below five percent. But about 165,000 recently degreed 20-somethings were still seeking an employer to help them put their bachelor's degrees to work (and likely start paying off their student loans).


4. Some states are better for job-seeking college grads than others.

While those who’ve earned bachelor’s degrees reliably fare better than those with less education, the employment prospects of recent college grads vary from state to state. According to the latest available data, the national unemployment rate stands at 4.7 percent for early 20-something college graduates who are not pursuing additional education. However, 10 states and Washington, D.C. have statistically lower unemployment rates (3.5% or lower). And in 8 states, recent college grads faced a more challenging labor market, with the highest unemployment rates in West Virginia (9.3%) and New Jersey (6.8%).

Unemployment Rate of Recent College Grads, 2015-16 average 

5. Newly minted English majors face the highest unemployment rates among the 20 most common majors.

Along with liberal arts and psych majors, English majors (like yours truly, once upon a time) have the highest unemployment rates among recent college grads in the latest data, with more than six percent seeking work. However, there are more unemployed business majors (about 28,000) than any other major—because so many more undergrads earn a business degree. Agriculture and education majors have the lowest unemployment rates, dipping below 3 percent. Regardless of major, college grads face a much friendlier labor market today than in 2009 and 2010.


With national unemployment rates recently reaching a 20-year low, the job market should be even better for this year’s college grads than it was for those graduating a couple years ago. But conditions can vary substantially, depending on what you majored in and where you are looking for work. Best wishes to all the recent college grads!

-Andi (@DataANDInfo)

This article grows out of a recent collaboration between the APM Research Lab and Marketplace. Read their recent piece on the economic conditions facing recent college grads.

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Andi Egbert