By REBECCA D. O'BRIEN The Hackensack Record
Today's college students will graduate into a labor market reshaped by the recession, one in which deferred plans, tight budgets and adjusted expectations are the norm.
Graduates - some shouldering tens of thousands of dollars of debt - will compete for jobs for which they feel overqualified and undercompensated, experts say.
"You have to go above and beyond to make it in this economy," said Merideth McGinley, 23, a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey who has yet to secure a job. "Yes, the economy is rising, but you have to kind of rise with it and continue to keep on moving. With the way things are now, you have to be flexible."
Flexibility, experts say, is the key; students will have to consider jobs in fields they might not have imagined and will need graduate degrees to pursue many careers.
Nevertheless, Carl Van Horn, an employment policy expert at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent study on jobs for college graduates, said he sees reason for optimism.
"I believe what 2012 graduates should expect is better than the last couple of years," he said. "Many will find it's a path upward, but not an immediate reward. Eventually they're going to do fine, but they're going to struggle, some of them."
Employers who responded to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey said they expected to hire 10.2 percent more college graduates this year. Another survey showed a 4.5 percent increase in median salary for the 2012 graduates compared with the class of 2011.
Still, it may be hard to reverse what experts have described as an erosion of confidence among young Americans - many see a bleaker economic future for themselves and their country.
Daniel Hernandez, 20, a sophomore at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., said that while he remains idealistic, he is not so confident when it comes to getting a job and paying back his student loans.
"I heard somewhere that this is the first generation not progressing, but regressing," he said.
Xiomara Henriquez, 31, a junior at Fairleigh Dickinson University's metropolitan campus in Teaneck, N.J., earned her associate's degree from Bergen Community College in 2009, then enrolled in a five-year bachelor's and master's program at Fairleigh Dickinson. She expects to graduate in 2014 and wants to become an elementary school teacher. Once considered a recession-proof career, teaching jobs, like nursing jobs, are now hard to come by.
College students and experts recited a new educational maxim: An associate's degree is often just an extension of high school; a bachelor's degree is the new associate's degree, and a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree.
McGinley, a psychology major at Ramapo, said she knows she will have to go back to graduate school to secure a job in her field.
"I should have thought it out better," McGinley said. "I probably shouldn't have been a psychology major. I love it, but when it comes to finding a job, I have to continue my education to find a job that's really in the field I want to do."
Van Horn said that while he cautions against rushing into graduate school, bachelor's degrees are often only good enough to get a first job.
"I think students understand that the idea of permanent jobs, the idea that you don't need to retrain at some point, is no longer true in the U.S. and in most of the world," Van Horn said.