Degree of Difficulty

One graduate's journey to unemployment

| September / October 2003


All things considered, I think I dealt with my first rejection from a Target store pretty well. After all, a cashier job wasn't my first choice for postcollege employment. Months later, though, I was still looking. And the second rejection from Target really hurt. Here I was, a graduate of one of the country's top-rated liberal arts colleges (and carrying the debt load to prove it), and I couldn't get hired to stock shelves.

A year after graduation, I'm still jobless -- as are many of my former classmates. The stress of having little money is compounded by knowing that someday I'll have to start paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And I'm beginning to wonder whether this is more than an annoying blip in the economy. Maybe this is evidence that America needs to take a new look at how we think about higher education.

In Britain, for instance, university education costs students about $1,700 a year even at prestigious schools like Oxford and Cambridge, thanks to government support. British students can also get interest-free loans to fund both class fees and living expenses. Taxpayers generally see such programs as an investment in the future rather than an expensive subsidy. And Britain is not alone. Scandinavian countries, Austria, and Portugal offer free university education. In Germany, students receive extensive vocational training to complement their academic studies. Yet here in the United States, young people at the start of their careers are usually burdened by massive college debt and receive little in the way of career guidance.

Most students are forced to improvise their way into the job market. And while that can be rewarding in its own way -- I've done three months in a summer-stock theater company, worked at the local Democratic Party headquarters during the last election, and interned at Utne -- a paying job would be a lot better.