TOPICS > Economy

So You Have a Liberal Arts Degree and Expect a Job?

January 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In a follow-up to his report last month on the unforgiving job market for recent college grads, Paul Solman looks at graduates who've already been out of school for several years and are still struggling to find employment in their areas of interest. It's part of his ongoing series of reports on Making Sen$e of financial news.

GWEN IFILL: Finally: from an older generation to a younger one — tonight, a follow-up to a story we aired last month on the tough job market for recent college graduates.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at job-hunters who’ve already been out of school for a few years.

It’s part of his reporting on Making Sen$e of financial news.

RICHARD WHITE, Career Services, Rutgers University: The last couple of years have been a very, very tough time to be coming out of college.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rutgers University, where Richard White runs career services.

RICHARD WHITE: At the time of graduation, probably 50 percent of college grads have some kind of job. That’s during the good times. That probably was cut in half during these last two tough years.

PAUL SOLMAN: Green shoots have now appeared for the class of 2011, Richard White says.

RICHARD WHITE: There are two recent national surveys, one by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which has projected a 13 percent increase in employer hiring of recent college grads. The other just was announced by Michigan State University, and that indicates a 10 percent increase.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the upturn may not help grads who hit the job market when the great recession did.

Mike Bartolomei, with a 2006 degree in labor relations, says his spotty job history is a stigma.

MIKE BARTOLOMEI, Job Seeker: Once they look at my resume and figure out that, you know, I have been out of college for a while, and they’re almost — it almost becomes an issue. It’s becomes the issue of — yes, a little bit of a “you’re tainted” issue, like, well, why haven’t you gotten more established already? Why have other people overlooked you?

PAUL SOLMAN: It may be irrational, says Professor Carl Van Horn, but it’s true.

CARL VAN HORN, Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers University: Some employers clearly will discriminate against those who have white spaces on their resume. So, they will say, “Why didn’t Joe or Sally have a job between 2008 and 2011?” forgetting that we have had this horrible recession. They will still say, oh, well, I will take the person who is right out of school, just as we always imbue great faith in the next person who comes along.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is this, then, the fate that awaits recent grads like those we have interviewed: anthropology major David Cook, who washed trash cans on a job that ended last month; G.C., a comp lit major from Brown, working part-time for a year now logging license plates on a toll road in Colorado; Evan Melillo, a history grad with a political science minor who is substitute teaching one day a week just north of Cape Cod; Abigail Lunetta, who graduated with honors, walking dogs part-time in Manhattan?

Not that they regret going to college, mind you.

ABIGAIL LUNETTA, College Graduate: I love that I have gone to college, and especially since I don’t come from a family of college graduates.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, she says:

ABIGAIL LUNETTA: If I known that I was going to be graduating into this kind of economy, I probably would have pursued something a little more practical, possibly pre-med.

WOMAN: I also want to major in art history and political science.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do-it-yourself voice-generated animations mocking liberal arts degrees, they’re now all the rage on the Internet.

MAN: If you like learning about history, you can always visit one of the local libraries and borrow the books for free. It would save you 18 grand on learning something you can read about at the library that would only cost you $2 in late fees.

[Watch the full “So You Want to Become a Liberal Arts Major?” video (contains some explicit language)]

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s only 18 grand because this one is from Canada. One of the most popular such cartoons lampoons English majors.

WOMAN: I got an A on my “Hamlet” paper. I have brilliant thoughts about the theme of death in literature.

WOMAN: In all of literature, what field do you intend to specialize in?

WOMAN: All of it. I like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society.” I want to live a life of the mind.

[Watch the full “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video]

PAUL SOLMAN: But academic studies suggests it may be a tough slog even for those with less lofty goals.

CARL VAN HORN: Your entering wage when you graduate from college has a big long-term effect on your wages over the lifetime. So, the students graduating into this recession are not likely to do as well as the student who graduated in 2005 or the one who graduated in 1999 or whatever in terms of their lifetime earnings.

PAUL SOLMAN: New grads in a down market take and remain in lesser jobs, stunting their income growth. They’re cowed, says Professor Van Horn.

CARL VAN HORN: They tend to be less risk-oriented. They’re risk-averse. If you can get that job in communications, then you’re less likely to look over your shoulder and say maybe there’s a better job down the road. You say, well, I better stick with this one.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the end, schools like Rutgers are doing what they can to match students to the world of work. But, says the school’s career services head, a four-year liberal arts degree, for all its virtues, may just be a workplace anachronism.

RICHARD WHITE: The educational system that we have in this country, it’s, in many ways, the best in the world, yet it’s somewhat based on a 17th century model, which is the liberal arts, a smattering of this and that, and trying to develop a broad-minded, you know, well-thinking individual.

Whether that is what, you know, this economy, this global economy, within our country needs in the 21st century, I think, is a big question.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s a question that may be asked with special urgency by those who graduated the past few years.