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May 3, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Despite challenges, 2012 grads have youth, tenacity on their side

TERRE HAUTE — Let the doomsday crowd line up like a scene from “Animal House.”

The naysayers will run the Class of 2012 through a gauntlet of bad news. The newest, youngest college graduates will be expected to quietly absorb the gloomy predictions with a respectful, “Thank you, sir, may I have another.” After all, the obstacles they face in the current job market loom large.

n More than half of college grads under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed in 2011, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. That means 53.6 percent of those folks are either jobless or working a job in which their college training is not put to use. Ouch.

n For every 1-percent increase in the national unemployment rate, students graduating in a recessionary era earn 6- to 8-percent smaller paychecks in their first year of work than people who graduated in more stable economic times, according to a Yale School of Management researcher. (The U.S. jobless rate is now 8.2 percent.) Ouch.

n The average college graduate now shoulders $25,250 in student-loan debt, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt, cited in a Medill School of Journalism report. Together, all college grads owe more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loans. Ouch.

None of those boulders is insignificant, but many of the folks who’ll earn college diplomas this weekend from Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana State University and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College have one checkmark on the positive side of their ledger that eventually will take the sting out of all those negatives.

n They’re young.

The job market eventually will improve, especially as the pace of baby boomer retirements continues to quicken. Eventually, the boomers who dominate Congress and state legislatures will be replaced by younger Americans who more keenly appreciate the magnitude of financial hardships caused by soaring college tuition rates and student-loan debt. Eventually, the latest college grads will land the job that matches their skills, even if they have to leave their hometown or home state to find it.

In fact, the people who’ll toss their caps in the air this weekend could constitute one of the nation’s strongest demographic groups. Why?

n They’re tough.

On average, those receiving degrees in ’12 started their college careers in the teeth of the Great Recession, enrolling in either the fall of 2007 (just before the economic nosedive began) or the fall of 2008 (when the financial markets and U.S. auto industry imploded). Through all of the turmoil, likely engulfing their own families, they didn’t quit, though the temptation was strong. They heard skeptics question, understandably, whether the value of a college diploma was worth the costs, yet the students kept studying. They’ve learned to think critically while surrounded by doubt. They’ve heard the phrase, “We can’t afford that.”

The days of most students working their way through a four-year college is a distant memory, because the pricetag is simply too high. Nonetheless, 78 percent of them still hold jobs while they’re enrolled, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Upon graduating, instead of immediately saving for the American dream of a house and a car, they must first focus on paying off their student-loan debt. Maybe that humbling experience will prepare their generation to handle mortgages, auto purchases and credit cards more wisely than their predecessors. They’ll develop patience sooner.

As overwhelming as the debt predicament seems, the Class of 2012 did the right thing by persevering. Eventually, it will be rewarded for completing its education. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the United States require a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment rates are lower for college grads overall, and their average annual incomes are higher.

Most crucial, they chose to continue learning. That knowledge will be their asset, even as they enter an economy that is gradually healing from a mess those young people did not create. That entry into the “real world” may include an initiation filled with ominous predictions, but this fresh crop of grads will have many more legitimate reasons to celebrate this weekend. They stuck it out through some of the toughest times in decades.

We should be thanking them.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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