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One Grad Faces Decisions in a Time of Recession

• May 09, 2010 • 5:00 AM

One year out of college, Miller-McCune fellow and economics aficionado Elisabeth Best examines her options for work or more schooling.

To go or not to go? That is the question.

For many recent college grads (myself included), graduate school is an option with ever-increasing appeal. With young people’s unemployment at almost 19 percent in March, hiring of 2010 college graduates down 7 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers and underemployment of 16- to 24-year-olds estimated at a whopping 31.9 percent at the end of last year, career opportunities aren’t exactly plentiful for the bright young minds of the future.

Enrollment in graduate school is on the rise; the Higher Education Research Institute’s 2009 Senior Survey found that 28.9 percent of graduating seniors expected to go the following fall. This is hardly surprising; graduate school enrollment generally goes up in bad economic times.

As the expression goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough go to graduate school.”

Statistics aside, I have personally observed that in today’s market — at least in California — a college degree doesn’t quite equate to the standard of living that my parents (or their parents) assured me I’d have before I entered into the world of student loan debt. Most of my former classmates are living at home with their parents (national estimates suggest that 80 percent of college grads move home after graduating), and the vast majority of them are underemployed. Many of those who are employed full time dislike their jobs, and those who like their jobs don’t make enough money to live on their own.

A 2006 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that my graduating class is especially out of luck: “Earnings losses from temporarily high unemployment rates are minimal for workers with two or more years of work experience and are greatest for labor market entrants.” In English, that means that people with less than two years of work experience are the ones least likely to find jobs right now.

As a member of this unlucky cohort, I decided last fall to explore my options for making the most of the recession. With dismal job prospects, a graduate degree starts to look pretty good, but the payoff of getting one has been widely debated. First of all, the term is extremely generic — it lumps MBAs, J.D.s, M.D.s, Ph.D.s, and the gamut of M.A.s together, which makes it difficult to assess the degrees’ benefits. After all, a six-year funded doctoral program in microbiology has little in common with a two-year master’s in public policy and its $100,000 price tag.

That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying. The Economist asserts that “if you’re going to go back to school, now is the time to do it,” as both the opportunity cost of the time spent in school and that of the money spent on school are low.

Put simply, the opportunity cost is what you aren’t getting because of what you are doing. From this point of view, grad school has never looked so cheap: My wages for two years weren’t likely to be all that great anyway, even if I did find full-time employment. However, with the cost of living and tuition factored in, grad school is still an expensive option, albeit one with a potentially significant payoff.

Penelope Trunk, founder of Gen-Y social network Brazen Careerist, argues against “dodging the recession” with grad school because it is too steep an investment in learning one thing for people who are likely to have multiple careers over the course of their lifetimes. Trunk also asserts that “you can learn from any job,” and points to her own experience working on a French chicken farm, in which she learned, among other things, how to get out of killing bunnies.

Although as an economics aficionado — I favor the opportunity-cost approach — the advice from the blogosphere didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already heard. I then turned to the wealth of knowledge that has helped confused college grads find direction for ages: the Career Services center.

The Career Services website took a checklist approach: If you’re going in order to postpone the “real world,” you shouldn’t be going. If you’re going because you want to earn more money at an as-yet-undetermined job, grad school is probably not a good idea. But if you are dying to learn more about a given subject or hoping to go into a profession that requires an advanced degree — Ding! Ding! Ding! — grad school is for you.

Since I fall into the can’t-imagine-going-through-the-rest-of-life-without-learning-more category, I decided to apply. There followed the decision of what to study: As someone who would ultimately like to work in publishing in some capacity, is journalism school the best option? For many reasons, both financial and personal, I don’t think it’s the right choice for me. (My sentiments echo those of former CIO staff writer Chris Lynch, who sees the reader elite likely to emerge as paywalls go up as the harbinger of expert-based journalism.)

After ruling j-school out, I applied to master’s of arts and professional school programs in international relations for this fall. I forgot, however, that applying can lead to acceptance letters, and acceptance letters generally require responses in the form of “statements of intent to register,” which tend to be due … well, now.

So, I find myself once again faced with the question: ‘To go or not to go?’ It’s a dilemma that I feel lucky to have; education today is, more than anything, a privilege. Worldwide, an estimated 72 million primary-school-aged children weren’t in school in 2005, and even in the United States, only about 30 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

In the past few weeks, I have turned to graduate students, professors and family members, hoping someone would tell me what to do. I have returned to the bookmarked career services websites of various universities on my computer to re-read their advice. I have repeatedly made the opportunity-cost argument to myself, and even considered my biological clock at length.

Unfortunately, I realized that no amount of statistics or advice could decide for me whether to attend graduate school this fall. It’s a deeply personal choice that only one person can make — me. And whether I like it or not, I’ve realized in the last few months of soul-searching that I’m the kind of person who wants more in the way of a formal education.

So call me a recession-dodger if you like, but this fall, I’m caving in to my inner overachiever and going back to school.

Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

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