There were so many low points, it’s hard for Kyle Whittaker to say which was the lowest. Ditching his girlfriend’s broken-down Lincoln at a gas station, because they couldn’t afford the tow? Month No. 3 of living on nothing but angel hair pasta? Or maybe it was the day he realized he might have to move back in with one of his parents.
It was 2009, and "I wasn’t confident that it was going to work out where I was," he said. "You acquiesce to the fact that there’s just nothing coming for you."
Things weren’t supposed to turn out this way. Mr. Whittaker, 27, had worked hard in high school and got into George Washington University in Washington. And he studied applied mathematics and statistics — staples on lists of "the most lucrative majors."
By all measures, he had done everything right. He just did it at the wrong time.
Mr. Whittaker graduated in May 2008 and walked into the worst recession since the 1930s. After six months scouring job sites, he took the only position he could get — working part time at Lord & Taylor in Northern Virginia.
The pay barely covered his rent.
"It definitely hits your self-esteem pretty hard," he said recently from his home in Severn, Md.
Mr. Whittaker is part of a generation of college graduates who had the bad luck of beginning careers during the Great Recession and its aftermath. About 10 million students have earned bachelor’s degrees since 2008. In 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost half of recent college graduates were considered underemployed, working in jobs that typically do not require a bachelor’s degree. That compares with about a third of college graduates over all.
"They were successful in the task that we put before them," said Carl E. Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. "Then they can’t get a good job."
And now many recent graduates wonder if a college degree was worth all the effort and expense.
Brittany Himes is pretty sure it wasn’t. Growing up in Mount Vernon, Ky., she had wanted to go to beauty school. But by the time she became a high school senior, the message had sunk in: A four-year college degree was a must. It was "something that you definitely had to do if you wanted to be successful in the job market," she said. She would be the first in her family to go to college.
In December 2009 she finished a business degree at Eastern Kentucky University. After more than a year searching fruitlessly for an entry-level administrative job, she went back to Plan A. She finished a cosmetology program last September.
Now, at 28, Ms. Himes is making $7.20 an hour, with $27,000 in student loans to pay off.
"I’m starting at the bottom," she said between appointments at Kolor Kreations salon in Richmond, Ky., her blond hair now dyed black with purple highlights. "I enjoyed college. I enjoyed learning, but in the end it didn’t really amount to much for me."
Ms. Himes’s generation is hardly the first to stumble. In a recent paper, the New York Fed economists Richard Deitz and Jaison R. Abel looked back more than two decades and found that young graduates typically took a while to settle into careers, no matter the economic conditions.
But what they end up settling for has changed. They are more likely to work part time or in low-wage jobs like retail or restaurant work. "Things have gotten tougher for recent college graduates," Mr. Deitz said.
Making matters worse is the more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, which can delay everything from getting married to buying a home.
Natalie Bend graduated from Northern Illinois University in December 2007. She owed a little less than $15,000, well below the national average of $20,000 at the time. The plan was to work for a few years and go to law school.
The plan got off to a rough start. "To go from doing really well and being respected by professors and by my peers in class to, ‘We’re just not hiring at Target right now, sorry, thanks,’ was really disappointing," she said.
After months of looking, Ms. Bend, 31, finally found a job at a domestic violence crisis center — just as her first loan payment came due. But her pay was so low she deferred her loans and the balance grew to $32,000.
She’s now an administrative assistant with a financial services firm, a job that requires a degree. She is also married with a baby on the way. But, as with many recession graduates, her slow job start means putting off buying a house. And her plans for law school? They have been delayed for a decade, she said.
Mr. Deitz and Mr. Abel found that by their 30s, most college graduates do end up in career-oriented jobs that require degrees. But the long on-ramp to a decent job can exact a price in earnings for years. "Where you start affects where you end up," said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Then there’s the impact on retirement savings for someone who graduates from college with student loan debt and can’t afford to save for a decade. Take a 22-year-old who earns $30,000 annually, gets a 3 percent raise each year, saves 4 percent of salary that first year in a 401(k) and raises that by 2 percentage points each year until reaching the maximum legal contribution.
That person would end up with $953,100 by age 65 in today’s dollars, assuming a 6 percent annual return on the investments, according to the contribution increase calculator on Vanguard’s website. That end amount, however, falls to $674,800 for someone who doesn’t start saving until age 32, earning $40,000 annually, all other things being equal.
College does eventually help most people get jobs and keep them. At its worst, unemployment for recent graduates reached about 7 percent in 2011, compared with the peak of almost 16 percent for young workers without degrees, reached in 2010, according to Mr. Abel and Mr. Deitz. For people 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree, unemployment is now 3.4 percent, about half the rate for all workers.
"They’re not doing as well as they might have done when the economy was in full growth mode, but they do a lot better than anybody else," Mr. Carnevale of Georgetown said.
Six years after he graduated, Kyle Whittaker, the math major who worked at Lord & Taylor, has pretty much caught up to where he wanted to be. Eventually, he landed a job as an analyst with a defense contractor in Maryland.
Gradually, he paid off his credit card debt and started chipping away at his student loans. He began contributing to his workplace 401(k), steadily increasing his contribution. Three and a half years and several promotions later, he and his fiancée had saved enough to make a small down payment on a house.
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Mr. Whittaker can even find some good in his retail job. When he showed up for the analyst interview, he was wearing a designer suit with a stylish pocket square. He bought it with his employee discount.
"I would like to think that things are working out relatively well now," he said. "It just took a little bit of time."