Future not so bright for best and brightest

For those graduating next month, the picture couldn’t be bleaker. A sour job market compounded by heavy student loan debt makes graduating from college a nightmare.

“It’s like updating my Facebook status from being a student to being unemployed,” said Samer Naji, who will be graduating from UC San Diego next month. “I have absolutely nothing to do.”

He’s not alone. David Chang, a senior at UC Davis, finds himself in similar shoes.

“The first thing I’m doing is moving back home,” he said.

Nearly four years after the start of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy is still struggling to recover. Companies just aren’t hiring, and that’s affecting recent grads. California’s unemployment hovers at 10.9 percent – nearly three percentage points above the national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. Nationally, for young workers under 25, that rate nearly doubles to 16 percent.

The U.S. Labor Department announced Friday that 69,000 jobs were created in the month of May, the weakest job numbers in a year. But the effects of these numbers on college students are particularly acute. According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 25.5 percent of the class of 2012 surveyed already has a job in hand, compared to last year’s 24 percent for the class of 2011.

For David Chang, that’s bad news.

“I applied to 12 jobs, but only heard back from one,” he said.

For those struggling to land a job, Marcie Kirk-Holland, a project manager at the UC Davis Internship and Career Center, asks this question.

“Can you articulate what skills you have to offer?”

Kirk-Holland believes one needs to understand what he or she wants to do, before embarking on any career path.

“We encourage students to get involved in activities such as internships to see if that is a comfortable work environment for them,” she said.

For some students, graduating doesn’t just entail finding a fulltime job. Commencement also marks the countdown of the typical six month grace period before repayment on student loans begins.

“I was lucky to have borrowed money from my family, but for some my friends, they are very worried,” Naji said.

Student loans have risen in recent years, corresponding with the fall of state support for higher education.

In 2000, the average UC student graduated with $12,192 in student loans. For 2010, that figure was over $17,000. With jobs ever so scarce, students are struggling to make ends meet, let alone to start paying off their student loans. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education suggest that payments are being made on only 38 percent of federal loans. 55 percent of UC Davis grads in 2011 left college with a student loan, according to the university’s financial aid office. Kathryn Maloney, the head of that office, says there’s been an increase in the number of loans being taken out.

“By the time you are a senior, odds are you have a loan,” she said.

With California facing steep budget cuts now that projected revenues have fallen short, the UC system may endure further cuts to state spending if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative is not passed at the ballot box in November.

The cost of attending the University of California is already at an all time high. For a California resident, these costs amount to $30,000 annually, including tuition, board and miscellaneous expenses. System-wide fees currently stand at $12,192. Last year, the university raised tuition by 18 percent. This year, the regents are considering a proposal to hike fees by 6 percent or the equivalent of $731 a year. Depending on whether the state budget is passed on time, a final decision on fees will likely come in July.

“As we speak today, so much remains uncertain,” said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. “Our hands are tied; so much of it is up in the air.”

The lack of state support for UC has already forced the institution to do everything it can to save money. This has meant consolidating programs, cutting academic programs and delaying hiring. In other words, what Klein calls “trying to squeeze savings out of every avenue that we possibly can.”

“Raising tuition is really the last thing we want to do. We are working feverishly to avoid doing that,” she said.

Meanwhile, several state politicians have spoken out against the rising cost of tuition.

“We are providing a lesser program at a greater cost. UC, CSU and the community colleges have not gotten the resources they needed to get the job done,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. 

In April, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, proposed passing what he called the “Middle Class Scholarship Act.” The bill would cut tuition by two-thirds for students with families earning between $80,000 to $150,000. Under the current system, those with families earning less than $80,000 receive the brunt of university grants, leaving middle class students to fend for themselves.

The bill, AB 1501, passed the Assembly Wednesday with 55 votes. Four Republicans voted in favor of the measure.

“If we are to restore prosperity and opportunity for every Californian, we need to ensure that higher education remains accessible and affordable, and that’s exactly what the Middle Class Scholarship Act aims to do,” Perez said in a statement.

Student groups, including the University of California Student Association (UCSA), have expressed support for the initiative.

“This would be a huge help to the middle class students that are being squeezed out,” said Claudia Magana, president of UCSA. 

As someone who has counseled students on careers for 20 years, Kirk-Holland believes that the state needs to take a more proactive approach to supporting the public higher education system.

“A highly trained and sophisticated work force is vital to California’s economic strength,” she said. “Funding for higher education is an investment.”

Regardless of whether the state chooses to increase its funding for UC, the current state of the economy has clearly taken its toll. With commencement only two weeks away, both Chang and Naji have yet to find a job.

“I just want to find a job. Honestly, if it can just get food on the table, I’ll take it,” Naji said.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: