Now What?

College graduation plunges some twentysomethings headlong into a quarterlife crisis

Still, some are disillusioned with Career Services' deluge of job fairs.

Even Kirby, who's the most disenchanted of the lot, says, "Had I known all that I know now, I probably wouldn't have gone to college. But, on the other side, had I not gone to college I wouldn't know a lot of the people that I know now."

When Cartor meets with her college-aged clients, she tries to put things into perspective, telling them, "This is just a part of development. You have periods of time when everything just sucks. And you have to go from this end of the swamp to that end of the swamp, but you can't dodge the swamp. In the end, you're going to be a tremendously different person."

Like trudging up a deceptively tall mountain, graduating from college arguably separates the strong-willed from the weak-willed. The journey demands perseverence, what with stomaching the Ramen noodles, research papers and sexual blunders (or exploits, if you knew what you were doing) of college. And it takes a helluva long time—about 17 years to get from kindergarten to senior year of college.

The day you finally graduate college, you want to stand on your mountain, raise your arms in the air, and wait for the job offers to come raining down, burying you in prospects of plenty. This is the moment you've been promised, and practically everyone's peering up at you with their hands cupped over their eyes, waiting to see what you'll do next, now that you've come this far.

Most of you don't believe the hardest part is yet to come, as few figure out the scam before graduation. You've believed the adults, the adults who nodded their heads seriously and assured you that after graduation you'd be sure to find a job, an honest-to-God job, something interesting, meaningful, something that paid more than $7 an hour. They lied. Really, they did. Here's what they didn't tell you:

By the time the cap and gown have been kicked to the back of the closet and the graduation money blown through, things can get scary

Arrison Kirby, a broadcasting major who graduated from UT and currently delivers pizzas, says, "I graduated [two years ago], and I didn't know what to do... I looked really hard for a job when I graduated, but I was at rock bottom because there was really nothing." Aaron Cunningham, who will graduate this winter with a marketing degree, says, "After I graduate college, that's it. I'm on my own. There's no fallback plan. There's no going home, and I'm just overwhelmed at the idea of being completely on my own." Cunningham also admits to monthly panic attacks—no joke—at which point he'll send out a pile of resumes. And Alice (not her real name), who graduated a year ago in psychology, says, "I was really worried, really anxious about what I was going to do and how I was going to make money."

Psychologist Joyce Cartor says that the middle 20s is often a period of "incredible disillusionment" in a person's life. "They have an image of themselves that's supposed to get put into play after graduation, and it doesn't."

Kids from wealthier families have an even more difficult time transitioning away from college, says Cartor, who values her own middle-class upbringing because her college graduation "didn't feel like such a kick in the teeth."

"Many kids from upper-middle-class and upper-class families have never worked, or if they did, they were lifeguard at the pool for a summer, and the concept of being really poor and paying for their own bills, they don't know what to do with it," she says.

Many college grads sink under the gravity of the job search process and the sudden onslaught of responsibility.

It's something that Cartor says is "devastating to so many people's self esteem." Seventy-one percent say they expect their job search to last for six months or more following graduation.

In the scuffle, many people quickly become "underemployed" after graduation, accepting jobs they're overqualified for, in food service or retail. "Very few people who went to college are doing anything to do with their major," says Kirby. "They're in food service. Or selling drugs."

Amanda Burkey, who graduated from Pellissippi State with an associate's degree in business almost two years ago, has been waiting tables since then, trying to pay off $16,000 in loans before enrolling in culinary school. In retrospect, she says she'd rather have gone straight to culinary school from high school, but didn't figure that out until it was too late.

Unless a person aspires to a sales-type job, gratuitous down time before the job search begins can be a turn-off to some potential employers, says Bob Greenberg, director of Career Services at UT. "But if you're a liberal arts major, and you've been working in an upscale restaurant [after graduation], really talking to people, and honing your customer-service skills, an employer would probably view that as a year of gaining maturity."

Though Greenberg and the folks at Career Services advise students to begin their job search at least a semester before graduation, most students say they find it preposterous to try to balance the last semester of school and a full-fledged job search. "There's a higher percentage of students who haven't started looking for a job before they graduate, so when they graduate they're thinking, 'I'm nervous as a cat,'" says Greenberg. "If a student comes in at the beginning of the semester or if they come in at the end, things will be a lot different." When students give themselves plenty of time to look for a job, he's better able to help them, encouraging them to attend job fairs and programs.

Still, some are disillusioned with Career Services' deluge of job fairs.

"We're here to facilitate, but we can't sell them, they have to sell themselves," says Greenberg.

Students may return to confer with Career Services even years after graduation. Greenberg says he sees people in their teens and in their 50s.


Though this fact, perhaps, shouldn't come as a surprise, it does to many college graduates: It's easier to bring home the bacon with a Bachelor of Science than a Bachelor of Arts.

"Majors in the liberal arts typically require more time to secure a professional level position," says Krueger. He lists the most in-demand career concentrations as business, engineering, education and health care, saying that it's easier to secure a job with these majors.

Other majors that lend themselves to quick hiring are special ed, accounting, logistics, foreign language, and sales, says Greenberg.

In a report released this month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, accounting majors start off with an average salary of $43,050 a year (up 2.4 percent from last year), while liberal-arts majors start off with $29,060 a year (down 3.6 percent from last year).

Meanwhile, many liberal-arts majors lament that such information has come too late, or that they didn't heed the warnings when they came.

"I feel like if I had gone with a science or a business or an engineering major, I would have had more luck, but I think the liberal-arts degrees are set up to not help you until you go on and pursue graduate degrees," says Alice, who regrets not majoring in engineering.

Kirby seconds the sentiment, emphatically bemoaning his major.

"Broadcasting is the worst," he says. "They tell you over the course of your classes that if you want to make money, you don't go through broadcasting. So it's like, why would anyone pay money to go learn how to not make money?"

Greenberg insists that a capable person makes much more of an impression on a potential employer than a particular major does.

"Employers look more at personal attributes than the field of major," he says. "They look for strong communication skills, leadership, maturity and a strong work ethic."

Seventy percent of college students rely on student loans to get to the top of higher education, leaving the average undergraduate student with upwards of $20,000 in debt come graduation day. Alice is $17,000 in the red, with a psychology degree that gets her little to nothing without a master's to complement it. Discontented with her current job as a counselor at a local hospital ("What I could get was the same job that a high school student could get, and I was lucky to get that"), she re-enrolled at UT, taking an American history class just to bide her time.

"I got very nervous when my student-loan people were telling me that I was going to have to start paying soon," Alice says.

Most students have to start paying on their debt six to nine months after graduation, something Brian Krueger likens to paying on a car that you don't have. Krueger is the author of College Grad Job Hunter , a best-selling entry-level job book, and has a 20-year history as hiring manager for various Fortune 500 companies. "The asset you do have is an education," he writes during an interview via e-mail. "While a car or other assets may depreciate, this is an asset that will continue to pay for years to come. The key is getting past the first payment."

Graduate students, of course, face even more daunting numbers after receiving a master's, owing $32,000 on average. And for seven percent of undergraduates and 11 percent of graduate students, loan payments drain one quarter or more of their post-grad incomes.

"College students are not aware of how much debt bites off them over a period of years," says Greenberg. "But they find that they've built up a mountain and are only taking a little rock out at a time."

According to the 2002 National Student Loan Survey, hefty debt often goes on to alter the course of a graduate's life. One in five grads say they revised their life plans in order to pay off debt.

Cate DaPrato, who will graduate this month, majored in history with aspirations of being a professor. "That's so hard to get into though, because you have to have a Ph.D., and it'll take you $150,000 to get there," she says. "And with a professor's salary, I would never be able to pay the debt back. It didn't seem like my work would get me the reward."

Instead, DaPrato has accepted a management position at Starbucks, where she has worked for the past two years.

Reflecting back on the collegiate experience, she says, "Part of me regrets [going to college], because I'm starting my life with so much debt," says DaPrato. "It's a two-sided issue for me, because I wanted to go to college and my parents told me they expected me to go, but that they couldn't pay for it. But I owe so much money, and I probably won't use my history major in any job that I'll have. At the same time, I'm very proud of my degree."


Often it's debt that drives college grads back into their parents' homes. In fact, 63 percent of U.S. college students return home for some period of time. Krueger says the trend has picked up momentum because of a sparse entry-level job market and slow economy.

"Moving in with parents should be an option of last resort, since new grads need to begin earning their own way in life," he says.

Social scientists have observed that as the mean age of marriage decreases and job-training requirements increase, young people have lengthened their dependence on parents.

Greenberg believes that technology has promoted a sense of indolence, as well. "College students used to work at [finding a job] a lot harder," he says. "There was no Internet, so students had to take advantage of every opportunity they had. They don't fight nearly as hard to get themselves in front of potential employers."

For twentysomethings who are already bummed that their lives haven't gone as planned, returning home can further a feeling of shame.

"They can't feel good about anything," Cartor says. "Then there's the added humiliation of how many of these people have to go home and live with their parents."

A return home, though, is sometimes necessary and even helpful. "A lot of people will get a job that pays them $30,000 out of college, and they get an expensive apartment, a new car, put some money on their credit cards, and then find they have no money left," says Greenberg. "In that way, moving home can be a good way to figure out how much things cost."

Adam Herrington, who graduated in English last May, moved home to Memphis after a six-month job search in Knoxville. "I really didn't have a choice. I had no money, and I couldn't find a job in Knoxville." He's since gotten a job in the Vision Center of a local Wal-Mart. Notably, this job has nada to do with his degree, but he has managed to support himself and has plans to get an apartment of his own.

The key is to make the home experience a transitory one; "My father says I have one month at home after I graduate, then I get the boot," says Cunningham.

Setting guidelines can nip complacency in the bud. "If you get out of college and you're depressed, it's easy to move back into hanging with people from your high school class, and I think that really hurts people's development," says Cartor. "They say, 'I'll just live this life that I've always lived. It's too scary to think about moving away and changing things and being lonely.'"

All this isn't to say that attaining a college degree isn't a worthwhile pursuit. Essentially, job analysts concur that a degree is what you make of it, and they maintain that college degrees are more important than ever for attaining a "good" job and drawing a decent salary.

According to, a website of Krueger's creation, college graduates make an average of $47,000 a year, while high-school graduates make $28,808 a year.

"The degree was often optional as recent as 20 years ago, where now it is expected as the ticket to entry," says Krueger.

And the job market is on the upswing, with entry-level job prospects up 13 percent from last year, says the NACE report. Still, the job market "hasn't recovered fully, and potential employers still aren't comfortable that they're out of the woods," says Greenberg.

Many students value their collegiate experience, despite the seeming dead-end nature of their degrees. "I don't regret going to college," Burkey says. "I feel like, first of all, I had to learn to make my own choices. I had to sit down and evaluate what I actually wanted. It was a big deal for me."

Even Kirby, who's the most disenchanted of the lot, says, "Had I known all that I know now, I probably wouldn't have gone to college. But, on the other side, had I not gone to college I wouldn't know a lot of the people that I know now."

Still, many college students express doubt. "I don't think that to be a successful person you really need a college degree," DaPrato says. "You need more practical knowledge than anything."

"There is the belief that you can make your life better by getting a bachelor's degree, and that's really not the case," says Alice. "Maybe it was 20 or 30 years ago when my parents were in school, but now it's different. A bachelor's degree doesn't really mean much anymore," she says, frustrated that she has the same job as many of her colleagues, who have only high school degrees.

When Cartor meets with her college-aged clients, she tries to put things into perspective, telling them, "This is just a part of development. You have periods of time when everything just sucks. And you have to go from this end of the swamp to that end of the swamp, but you can't dodge the swamp. In the end, you're going to be a tremendously different person."

Cartor says these can be times of productive depression, a chance to start over, as graduates have the freedom to follow their whimsy, to take time to travel and explore their identities.

"I think everybody ought to graduate and go away...get used to a different kind of life, and figure out who you are, even though that's so clouded with shame if you have a college degree," she says. Cartor believes that even more mundane jobs, like food service or retail, can be good for college graduates. "You may hate it, but at least you're interacting with the world in a completely different way."

And many college students are finding creative and important ways to adapt to their adult lives. Kirby started his own music production outfit, El Deth, and now works with dozens of local musicians in his home studio. Though El Deth isn't yet turning over profit, he supports himself by delivering pizzas on the weekends, and feels confident about his company's future. And Hyde Harper, an English major who graduated last May, will leave for Chile soon, where he'll travel for several months, looking for a job as an English teacher.

The students who have it the best are the ones who recognize what the college experience did provide for them, and what they have yet to provide for themselves.

"College is about helping you to think better, to think critically, and to become aware of new ideas, and most degrees aren't training you for a job," Cartor says. "Most degrees will prepare you to do all sorts of things, but not to step into a job."

Unfortunately, that's exactly what graduates want. They want to step from the cap and gown into the beckoning arms of a career. And instead, many re-fill their cupboards with Ramen noodles; after years of "maturing," they move back in with Mom and Dad, take years to pay off exorbitant loans, and alter life plans to accommodate a new set of realities. And they're not happy about it. Because on top of that mountain, some people arrive at the conclusion that they have nowhere to go but down.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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