February 21, 2024

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What makes this “Talent Disrupted” report unique? What questions does it answer that haven’t been addressed in previous research? 

This report breaks new ground in several ways. It is the most in-depth and timely analysis of the underemployment of recent college graduates to date. Using Lightcast’s career histories database, we are able to use a synthetic longitudinal approach to track what happens to college graduates over the first decade of their careers after they graduate, while other researchers have typically been limited by data constraints to analyses of cross-sectional surveys, such as surveys of individuals at a single point in time. We scrutinize many aspects of the college experience, including the characteristics of the college a graduate attended and whether they had an internship, and have grouped majors together in a way that reveals important variations in outcomes among business and STEM majors, for example. Last, we analyzed the minority of graduates who escape underemployment by their starting occupation, major, and whether they earned an advanced degree and, crucially, shed light on the pivotal role of internships in avoiding underemployment.

It seems that everyone is writing about whether college is a worthwhile investment. How does this report answer that question, knowing that the data show 5 in 10 graduates with bachelor’s degrees are underemployed one year after graduation?

“Talent Disrupted” underscores the importance of strengthening the link between education and opportunity. While a college education has many valuable noneconomic benefits, it is most economically worthwhile when students learn skills that are valued in the labor market and complement their academic learning with practical, relevant work-based learning opportunities, while making smart decisions with respect to how much debt they take on. The fact that a bachelor’s degree does not always guarantee economic success does not mean that individuals shouldn’t pursue a bachelor’s degree. Instead, policymakers, colleges and universities, and students and families should think carefully about the factors that impact the college experience and take constructive action to improve outcomes.

How does this report define underemployment? 

In our report, the term “underemployment” (or “underemployed”) refers to the experience of four-year college graduates who are employed in an occupation that doesn’t typically require a bachelor’s degree, while “college-level employment” (or “college-level job”) refers to employment in an occupation that typically requires a four-year college degree.

Some common examples of occupations held by underemployed college graduates include frontline retail sales workers, cashiers, waiters, drivers, administrative assistants, and construction workers.

Why is the first job after college graduation so critical?

For college graduates, both college-level employment and underemployment are sticky: Graduates who start in a college-level occupation most often stay in some kind of college-level job even if they change occupations over time, while those who start out underemployed usually stay underemployed — even many years later. Good first jobs place graduates on a trajectory to good future jobs and provide them with opportunities to further enhance their college-level skills over the course of their career. In fact, graduates who secure a first job in a college-level occupation are 3.5 times as likely to be in one 10 years after graduation compared to graduates who start out underemployed.

What does this report tell us about how a student’s field of study affects their chances of securing college-level employment after graduation? For example, why aren’t all STEM majors created equal? 

The single most powerful predictor of underemployment after graduation is one’s field of study, as in their college major. Indeed, one’s field of study usually matters more than the type of institution attended. 

Graduates with a major that involves a substantial amount of quantitative reasoning, such as computer science, engineering, mathematics, or math-intensive business fields, such as finance or accounting, experience the lowest underemployment rates — less than 37 percent — especially right out of college. Underemployment rates also are low for those who study education or health programs, such as nursing.

STEM is not a silver bullet. While policymakers typically think of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs as a sure pathway to college-level employment and high wages, the reality is more nuanced. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, or mathematics tend to experience relatively low underemployment, while those with a terminal bachelor’s degree in a life sciences field such as biology tend to face much higher underemployment rates. STEM outcomes are much better for those who also pursue an advanced degree, such as an M.D. or Ph.D.

What does the report tell us about how often different groups of graduates experience underemployment?

We found that men experience higher rates of underemployment than women, and Black graduates experience higher rates of underemployment than other racial groups. We also found that graduates who attended a for-profit college are more likely than those who attended public and private nonprofit colleges to be underemployed. Importantly, none of these factors affect a graduate’s odds of becoming underemployed as much as their major or whether they had an internship. The benefit of an internship associated with college-level employment, for example, is strongest for Black graduates. 

If you could deliver one message to the people and institutions that are responsible for educating and training students after high school, what would that be? 

For most college graduates, their first post-college job plays a pivotal role in setting the trajectory of their career. Therefore, we all need to be thinking of the first post-college job as a high-stakes milestone and give it the attention it deserves. Colleges and universities, states, and our country can do more to help prepare students for the critical transition from college to the labor market.

Specifically, policymakers and colleges and universities should work together to ensure that every student has access to high-quality education-to-employment coaching and at least one paid internship. Policymakers should also work to ensure that everyone has access to clear employment outcomes by college and degree program, including earnings and occupation outcomes. For example, what if, for every college program in the country, we knew the most common occupations a graduate of that program is likely to work in? Finally, we need to ensure every student has access to degree programs that lead to well-compensated, college-level employment. Today colleges and universities often restrict access to many of the programs that lead to well-compensated, college-level employment, often due to the higher cost of such programs. 

In the coming years, making substantial progress on these four solutions would strengthen the economic promise of college as a reliable pathway to opportunity and mobility.