A penny for your plans: the trials and tribulations of recent college grads
Jonah King’s graduation day was the day he became homeless. He does not remember being excited that day. He woke up in his dorm at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) with questions about how he would brush his teeth and where he would shower. King knew that it was his last day on campus, and he did not have a plan for after he crossed the stage.
He had his possessions stuffed haphazardly in his tan, 2006 Honda Sonata, but sleeping in his car was not his first choice for a plan. However, what he dreaded most would be publicly, via social media, asking for a place to stay or asking his parents for help.
King’s post-graduation living arrangements fell through suddenly. One thing led to another, and King was left without a place to stay or hang his newly-earned bachelor’s degree.
While King’s story might be striking, the trend it depicts is well documented. Graduates of many fields face the inconvenient truth that a college degree is not what it used to be.
Gloom, doom, board and room
Overall, a college degree earns higher wages over a lifetime. A four-year degree is a sound investment for many. However, as technology evolves and job markets change, a bachelor’s degree seems to mean less and less to employers.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when a college degree seemed like a foolproof plan for success. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2016 by Robert Valletta, those who had a four-year degree were earning increasingly more in the 1980s than their peers with only high school diplomas.
After the start of the 21st century, however, technological advancements began replacing workers in higher-level positions in many industries. This trend forced workers with a four-year degree into lower-level jobs.
King thought it would be easy to find a job with his degree. King has always loved writing which evolved into dreams of working in sports communication or video production. He spent four years at USFSP as a communications major.
Before graduation, King had plans to rent a newly vacated house nearby with three friends. Just a few weeks before graduation, the current tenants decided to stay. King’s would-be roommates went their separate ways, and King was left to find a place he could afford on his own. He had a job at the university but was working only part-time and earning minimum wage. He began his job search only a few weeks before graduation, and nothing came through.
After his graduation ceremony, King went out to eat with his parents and three younger sisters. He did not tell them about his housing situation or lack thereof.
“I think they were concerned,” King said. “I just told them everything was going to be fine a bunch of times, that I had something figured out.” King said he does not have a close relationship with his parents.
“But it was more on me,” King said. “They were always really good, you know, but there were always a lot of arguments, a lot of frustration, things like that throughout the years that made home life really difficult.” King later reached out to a number of friends who did not respond. He eventually resorted to making a Facebook post that was only visible to certain groups.
“My boss at the time was the first person to get back to me,” King said. “He had a place he had rented out, and he wasn’t living there. He was living with his significant other.” King was surprised by this act of kindness and relieved that he had a temporary plan.
“I was glad to have someplace to stay,” King said. “That was really it. He told me that the place really wasn’t that great. It had a multitude of issues, but just having someplace to say was better than my car.”
For everything there is a reason
Director of the Career Center at USFSP Lesa Shouse said that post-graduation fears are all too common among the students she meets with.
“I think every day we probably see students who are anxious and nervous about the future,” Shouse said. “I remember being very worried and not sure what I wanted to do after graduation, and that’s what we’re here for is to help provide resources.” Shouse said student anxiety even necessitated a partnership with the university’s Wellness Center.
“Students have a lot of anxiety that’s becoming a barrier and impeding them,” Shouse said. “And so working with a mental health counselor to kind of work on harnessing it and figuring out strategies to overcome it can help them with whatever process it is that they’re working through.” She also recommends starting a job search six months before graduation.
“Sometimes I’ll see students who come in the week before graduation or the week after and say ‘I don’t know what to do now,’” Shouse said. “Because they were so focused on academics that we didn’t get a chance to do some career processing.”
According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans believe gaining specific knowledge and skills related to a particular workforce in college is more important than personal and intellectual growth. However, while most graduates report college was useful for intellectual growth, they are less satisfied with their gained job opportunities and marketable skills.
Recent USFSP graduate Angelina Bruno is one such student. Bruno also graduated in May of 2017 with a degree in mass communications and has been unable to find full-time employment in her field.
“I feel like journalism majors are set up, not to sound bleak as hell, but set up to expect disappointment in the job market,” Bruno said. Bruno described how her teachers told her that jobs in the media industry were declining.
“They were definitely accurate in saying that there are no jobs in news,” Bruno said. “And they said ‘you’re probably gonna have to move.’ And that’s a harsh reality.” Bruno has family in St. Petersburg. Her sister just had a baby. Her younger brother is still in high school.
“I cannot go from something like this to living in rural America just to write news,” she said. Bruno spent the summer after her graduation scouring the Tampa Bay area for field-related jobs with no success. She retains a paid, weekly column from her time as a student, and is doing freelancing work to supplement her main income as a server.
“I’ve worked like five days a week for the last five years,” Bruno said. “Just to pay rent and stuff while going to school.” Bruno said that if she is unable to find stable work in the next year she may pursue a law degree, for “at least there’s work in that.”
Barking up the wrong degree
King and Bruno have more in common than their post-graduation struggles. They both put all their eggs in the media basket. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a student’s major, and the institution they attend will affect their lifetime earnings much more than it has in the past. Those with degrees in mass communications do not have the highest unemployment rates of college graduates, however, they frequently rank near the top of the list.
Growing up, King’s parents always expected him to go to college. “I thought it was gonna be a lot easier,” King said. “I thought once I graduated, my resume would look really good, and that was foolish of me. I thought that once I applied to all these places, I would hear back, and all I needed was an interview because I’m really good at interviews. But I found getting just even a callback was extremely difficult.”
Soon after moving into the spare apartment of his boss, King was able to secure an arrangement where his paycheck from his job at the university could substitute as his payment for room and board at the dorms.
It was just in time too, as King somehow broke the apartment’s washing machine and shorted out the power of half the apartment. King slept on the couch in the half that did have air conditioning for two nights before packing once more.
He remained in the dorms until the fall semester started. King continued his job search, applying to over 60 listed positions. Nothing came through. It was then that King knew he needed to expand his search to include jobs entirely unrelated to his field or his personal goals. It was difficult for King, who was equipped not just with a degree but also years of experience working in digital media, to begin to apply for jobs in sales and retail.
“I got to this point where all these applications were going through, and nothing came back, summer was coming to a close, and I couldn’t stay on campus anymore,” King said. “There was a definite breakdown. I was losing hope, faith and confidence.”
An arm and a leg and an internship
Emily Rogers, a recent graduate of USFSP who majored in management information systems, experienced some of the same post-graduate loss of confidence. Rogers took the opposite path of King. She too had a passion for writing but chose her major because it held more job security and financial stability.
“It’s all about money, and it’s all about making someone else money. It’s not about what you actually like doing,” Rogers said about her current job in information technology. “When you work in IT, it’s not all tinkering with gadgets, it’s ‘you need to do this faster, this needs to stay up longer, and you need to make sure that we’re making money.’ That’s all it really is. All business is.”
Although her job doesn’t offer Rogers the excitement she hoped for, she is grateful for the position. Landing the job was not easy. She started applying for entry-level jobs in the January before her expected August graduation.
“And so I must have applied to like 100, 200 jobs, and had a lot of experience,” Rogers said. “I was like ‘why is it so hard for me to find a job now?’” Rogers had also invested time in campus clubs and internships related to her field.
“Since I got here three years ago, I’ve been preparing for a job,” Rogers said. “So it wasn’t like for lack of trying or lack of being involved.” Rogers landed a position in her last week of school.
“It made me really depressed,” Rogers said. “I am really lucky because I found a job like a week before graduation that did pay well and is in my field, but I thought it would be a lot easier. It was good that I found it, but it was really, really hard.” Rogers also felt depressed even after finding a job because she felt she lost the excitement of being a part of a community.
“When you’re in school and your working towards it, that’s your entire identity,” Rogers said. “So I lost that when I graduated.” Rogers had to move to Sarasota for her new position and had trouble making new connections there, but currently feels more settled in, even if it is still not “the dream job.”
Every cloud has a silver byline
While Rogers was preparing to move, King was spending his last few days in the dorms. Luckily, King mentioned his predicament to a friend while they met to work on a project, and the friend offered up his couch as a temporary spot.
“I didn’t plan on it,” King said. “I planned on living out of my car because I didn’t want to place that burden on anybody else. It was frustrating to have already gone through it once and then to have to go through it again.”
About a week later, King finally landed another job and found an apartment the same day. King would be trying to sell DirecTV to grocery shoppers in Walmart.
“Everything pretty much came through for me that day,” King said. “I was relieved, I was just like ‘thank God that’s over.’ I was excited just to have a job and make money. I didn’t care what it was, I didn’t care if I was going to be at a call center or not. I didn’t care what the job was. The key was that I needed a job.”
Although King did end up hating the job, he was not there long. King soon found a media-related job as a communications intern for International Speedway Corporation and could not have been more thrilled. Sports-related journalism was his ideal gig, and he was on his way. He left his job at the university, fielding jokes about how he would need American flag-themed clothes on the way out.
After his internship ended, King began working as a waiter. Today, he is also pursuing stand-up comedy and starting a novel.
“What I remember was, at the end of the day always telling myself ‘it’s gonna happen, so just keep going,’” King said. “There’s not really time to feel bad for yourself or feel bad for your situation. You just got to figure stuff out. Just move forward.”
Information for this article gathered from: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CGMD25O, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/occupational-employment-projections-to-2024.htm, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/10/06/5-the-value-of-a-college-education/