Has graduation season become the most depressing time of year?

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By: Brad Tuttle
May 15, 2012

Has graduation season become the most depressing time of year?

College graduation used to be filled with hope and excitement. Lately, though, it seems as if the feeling most likely experienced while dressed in cap and gown is that of dread, with visions of a future burdened by unemployment, underemployment, and student loan payments in grads' heads.

Take your pick of major U.S. newspapers: Chances are, it's published a story recently, timed to coincide with graduation season, about how difficult it is to be graduating from college now, or to have earned one's degree over the past few years.

The Baltimore Sun, for instance, paints a dreary picture of life after college dominated by "high unemployment, depressed wages and loads of debt." Many new college grads have little option other than taking menial $8-an-hour jobs, and the piece is loaded with factoids like this:

An analysis by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston estimates that last year, about 38 percent, or 760,000, of the 2 million employed young graduates with bachelor's degrees were "mal-employed" -- working jobs that don't require a four-year degree.

USA Today chimes in with more depressing data:

The average student debt load tops $25,000 in the U.S., while the job market for recent graduates continues to struggle. More than 95 U.S. colleges report that their 2010 graduates -- the most recent data available -- owed on average more than $35,000, and 73 colleges reported that more than 90% of the 2010 class had student loan debt, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success' Project on Student Debt.

As does a Los Angeles Times story on how out of control student loan debt is, especially because incomes have been so stagnant:

The 6.4% average annual rise in college costs since 1981 far outstrips the 0.4% annual income growth, according to ConvergEx Group in New York.

The headline of a New York Times piece on student loans, meanwhile, says that college debt is creating a "hobbled" generation. It's all but guaranteed that more and more Americans will be hobbling around with student loan debt for decades to come:

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor's degree borrow to pay for higher education -- up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.

For its part, the Today Show's "Life Inc." section (HT: Consumerist) recently highlighted how one woman has had to delay her lifelong dream--to become a nun--due to student loans. It's hard to pay off $60,000 in student loans when you've taken a vow of poverty, and besides, it's necessary to be debt free before studying to be a priest or nun. After a decade-long struggle to pay off student loans, the woman in question is now on the course to become a nun--when she's about 39.

For the conspiracy-minded, an epic story in the April issue of Esquire lists factoid after factoid making a strong case that young Americans today have systematically been placed at a disadvantage compared to previous generations. And who is to blame for this state of affairs? For the most part, the finger is pointed at Gen Y's parents, the Baby Boomers.

It's not all bad news, though. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune story laments the sad state of the "lost generation" of young Americans who graduated into a horrendous jobs market in 2008 and 2009, but focuses on how more recent grads are faring better, relatively speaking:

According to a March survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), companies expect to hire 29,237 graduates this year, up 10.2 percent from 2011. Internship offerings are up 8.2 percent from a year ago. Job postings are triple what they were in 2010. The median starting salary for the class of 2012 jumped 4.5 percent to $42,569 from a year ago, the association reported.

Now, if the increases in salaries started to outpace the rise in college costs, that would be reason to celebrate--at least for the young people who haven't yet been saddled with gigantic student loans.

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