Failure to launch?

Virginia backs programs to produce more college degrees, while recent grads struggle to find jobs

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Print this page by Catherine MacDonald

When her alarm sounds at 4:30 a.m., Anna Yates rises, pulls the Starbucks uniform from her dresser drawer and heads to work. At the bottom of the drawer is her college diploma, which so far hasn’t been a ticket to a job in her major, mass communications. 

“When I was in college I really thought that I’d be able to have a good job right after graduating without too much trouble.” says Yates, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009.  “I thought that as long as you have a college degree you could find a job.”

Yates amassed $40,000 in student loans getting through college. She will rack up more debt this fall when she begins to pursue a master’s degree in social work — a plan she devised after failing to land a position in her field. “I feel like I have to take on more debt or keep floating around in a really limited job market,” she says.

Yates is not alone. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds reached 14.6 percent in July, compared with an overall jobless rate average of 9.1 percent. That number doesn’t reflect the number of recent grads who are underemployed like Yates. While there’s nothing wrong with working for the globe’s largest retailer of specialty coffee, Yates hoped to find a job that would turn into a career — preferably not in customer service.

Even as the 2011 General Assembly passed legislation to produce more college graduates in Virginia — particularly in the fields of science, math and technology — many recent grads were struggling with their employment situations. Some can’t find full-time work or, if they have a job, it’s not related to what they studied at college. Blame it on the tough economy, but there are plenty of ramifications.

According to TwentySomething Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting and research firm, 85 percent of the seniors polled in 2010 said they were planning to move back home following college graduation. Some, like Yates, are going to graduate school, even though they can’t afford it. Others are relocating to other cities and sometimes out of state just to get a crack at a decent job. Virginia Tech 2009 graduate Maggie Willis relocated from Midlothian after more than a year of job searching left her working at Banana Republic, a clothing retailer.  The Magna Cum Laude interior design major — who had a design internship under her belt prior to graduation —  is currently part of the design staff at RTKL, an architectural firm in Washington, D.C.

Besides the pressure of finding a job, many students struggle with a heavy debt load: 57 percent of Virginia’s 2009 grads have student loan debt, according to The Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access & Success, which has offices in Oakland, Calif. and Washington, D.C. Payments begin six months after graduation, a requirement that has some people taking more than one job — if they can find one — or cobbling together several part-time jobs.
Kellyn Fleming, who graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 2009, lives at home in Chesterfield County while working two jobs to pay off her student loans. Most recent graduates she knows fit the stereotype assigned to the “boomerang generation.” “If they didn’t go straight to grad school, the majority moved back home,” says Fleming, who works at Starbucks and as an admissions counselor at Randolph-Macon. 

Top jobs legislation
With many graduates struggling with similar plights, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s goal of producing 100,000 more college graduates during the next 15 years might seem counter-intuitive. Yet officials promise the jobs will be there — and the numbers seem to agree.

By 2018, there will be 389,000 additional jobs in Virginia that require post-secondary education, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. That’s about three times as many new jobs that will require only a high school diploma. The study says 64 percent of the jobs in Virginia will require post-secondary education.

There also is an economic incentive to produce more college graduates: Every $1 currently invested in Virginia’s public higher education system yields $13 in increased economic output, according to the Weldon Cooper Center’s study for the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. Plus, college graduates earn, on average, twice as much as those without degrees.

During its past session, the General Assembly unanimously passed the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, also known as the “Top Jobs” legislation. The legislation aims to produce those 100,000 graduates in a number of ways: by increasing in-state enrollment at Virginia schools (for example, universities have already added about 6,000 slots to this fall’s freshman class), improving graduation and retention rates and assisting students with some college credit to complete their degrees.

According to Laura Fornash, the state’s interim secretary of education, there are 900,000 Virginians who have some college credit. She says a major goal is to “find out why these students didn’t finish. In some cases it could be a parking ticket or a library fee they haven’t paid; it could be one course,” Fornash says.

Focus on STEM
The legislation also focuses on degree attainment in high-demand, high-income fields, such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as health care. According to Georgetown’s education/workforce center, by 2018 there will be about 196,000 STEM-related jobs in Virginia that require post-secondary education.

Fleming, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in religious studies, is skeptical about pushing more students to STEM subjects. She says students will study what they’re interested in, regardless of job prospects. “[Students will] start out going into science and then realize it’s not worth it because either they’re not interested in it, or they’re not doing well,” says Fleming, who is interested in a career in nonprofit management.

To encourage students to study STEM subjects, the Top Jobs legislation comes with new guidelines for public K-12 schools as well as state universities. Still, James Madison University President Linwood Rose says the programs targeted for expansion by the legislation have to overcome obstacles before they can produce more graduates.
“In some areas there is excess demand, and institutions don’t have space and faculty; nursing would be a good example there. We have a waiting list of people who would like to be nursing graduates,” he says. “In other areas there’s capacity but not student interest.”

To boost interest, Rose says an advisory committee is discussing financial incentives for students, such as loan forgiveness and scholarship packages for STEM majors. However, all this is “dependent on what happens with funding,” Rose says. “The STEM majors are some of the more expensive majors. So it’s difficult for institutions to expand those programs unless additional funding is provided.”

The legislation provides for the creation of a not-for-profit, STEM public-private partnership that will help with funding. Fornash says her department plans to examine regional STEM-training programs and “take the best practices in one area and make them available throughout the state” — funded, in part, by business. “We’re focused on building the work force of the future. To do that you really have to work hand-in-hand with business,” she says.

Efforts to improve STEM education begin early. Fornash says next year’s eighth graders will put education plans on the Virginia Education Wizard (, a site that helps students and parents explore career and post-secondary education options. Increased funding would boost efforts such as teacher preparation and equipment purchases for labs. “To interest students in STEM subjects, we really have to have exciting and well-equipped labs,” Fornash says.

Science instruction in Virginia isn’t as engaging as it could be. At least that’s the opinion of Claus von Zastrow, the COO and director of research for Change the Equation, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that seeks to improve STEM learning across the country. Von Zastrow says the standards set in Virginia (and other states) for science and math proficiency are too low. Students feel confident but perform poorly in these subjects, “and then college-level math and science turns out to be a rude awakening.”

“We’re talking about a huge proportion of students who enroll for a B.A. and don’t make it through. One of the reasons for that is insufficient preparation,” von Zastrow says. “Does this mean it’s foolhardy to get 6,000 more positions in higher education? No. Students should be offered a chance.”

Von Zastrow says the job market faced by recent graduates has “prompted a lot of people to start questioning this notion of higher education for everyone, but having a B.A. still pays a huge premium” — especially for STEM majors. “If we’re not creating a steady supply of graduates with STEM skills … then companies will take their jobs elsewhere,” he says. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rose says that while students may opt for non-STEM-related studies, JMU tries to make sure students “are at least informed about what the job prospects are for those majors.” He says the entire system of Virginia colleges is “looking at job prospects and projected lifetime earnings so that students have good information before they make choices.”

Pamela Lepley, executive director for university relations at VCU, says parents and students inquire more than ever about job placement for various majors and career assistance. “[VCU President Michael] Rao likes to say every one of our students needs to have actually done something. There needs to be a capstone experience: Internship, service learning, whatever your major is, there’s a practical application to it,  and you need to complete it before you get out of here,” Lepley says. “We’re looking at it more seriously than we ever have in the past,” she adds.

Rose points out that universities can only do so much. “We’re providing them with an education and advice on careers. The job market, unfortunately, is what it is,” he says.

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