Friday, October 23, 2009

Day 69 - The “Curse” of the Class of 2009

I remember the excitement of graduating with my bachelor’s degree back in the summer of 1980. I was 20 years old, eager, optimistic and confident that the world was my oyster. I boldly packed a bag, grabbed my guitar and headed for Los Angeles, where I was determined to make my mark. Of course I was going to make it ... I was freshly armed with my college degree.

How the times have changes.
The only thing I know for sure as my second college graduation approaches is that December marks my existence forever as a member of the very first “cursed” graduating class.

The Wall Street Journal has coined a phrase, “The curse of the graduating class of 2009,” writing about the subject initially in a May 9th article that decreed my college class faces the toughest job market in US history. The article painted a bleak, hopeless portrait of the American college grad looking for work. The class of 2009's "cursed" status comes to us on the heels of a struggle to finance our college educations in ways no one could have imagined for us.

Back in the day, the average college student paid tuition by blending family support, financial aid and, maybe, a part-time job of 8 - 15 hours per week. In 2009, family support and financial aid have become sadly inadequate for a huge number of undergraduates, making full-time work a very common thing. We graduate students have generally worked to support ourselves through these extra college years, but we also rely on the grants, assistanceships, fellowships and loans, which are becoming more scarce.

Is working as a student really necessary at any stage of the game? Are our earnings always used for academic expenses? A handful of studies indicate there is a significant negative association between working long hours and completing (or not completing) a degree. The conflict of work versus school appears to be to blame.

A few weeks ago, a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, published in the Journal of Population Economics released an article titled, Will Work for Beer. According to the report, they tested several ideas with regard to the financial motives for student employment. They found a decrease in financial help from parents meant an increase in the working hours of four-year college students. They also found an increase in the costs of higher education.

So the decision to work may have something (but not everything) to do with how much support parents provide and how expensive college has become. This is no surprise. But the authors went on to make an unnecessary assumption. They walked right into a stereotype, saying that their results meant the drive to work does not come from a need to make ends meet -- instead, students are working in order to have ‘beer money,' paying for entertainment but not their tuition.

This is a controversial assertion. I, for one, am not buying it. I can speak as a member of the group - all college students. I have been immersed in the collegiate lifestyle for nearly three years, and this hypothesis does NOT hold true for students at Murray State University. I can’t speak for students everywhere, but I do take offense at the notion. The evidence merely suggests that students work but don't generate enough income to match family contributions or meet their college costs. This could mean many things, including the fact that students are having a harder time finding enough work. Of course, it may also mean we need to find other ways to make ends meet - like student loans. The study does not provide solid evidence of what working students use their earnings for, how they prioritized expenses, or what they had to go without.

Working students are generally struggling students – be they undergrad or grad, traditional or non-traditional. There's good qualitative evidence on this. College professors will tell you they dislike full-time working students because they tend to fall asleep in class, and they have little time for studying. Let's face it. Traditional students who work are becoming more like non-traditional students every day. None of us get to know our classmates very well; we have no time for socializing. Our stress levels are higher, and the chances of degree completion are getting lower all the time. Why would anyone minimize the need to work, or mock us for trying, or reinforce a stereotype that students’ earnings are being spent in bars?

If colleges can’t work with students to help them find adequate financial supports, then working while going to school may soon be the case - and not the exception. As a proud member of the “cursed class of 2009,” I can only hope the job market improves quickly, and that all that successful pre-grad school career experience is worth something to potential employers.

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