About half of America's new college graduates are working in high school-level jobs like food service and retail: report

About half of America's new college graduates are working in high school-level jobs like food service and retail: report
A group of university graduates celebrate.kali9/Getty Images
  • Nearly half of new college graduates in the US are working high school-level jobs, per new research.
  • Around 52% of recent graduates start their careers in jobs that don't need a degree, it said.

Within a year of graduating, about 52% of people who recently earned bachelor's degrees in the US are working jobs that don't require a college education, according to a new joint report by two research firms.

The vast majority of underemployed graduates — 88% of them — are working high school-level jobs such as office support, food service, and retail within five years of graduation, per the report by the data research firms Burning Glass Institute and the Strada Education Foundation.

The report, published on Thursday, was based on a dataset of 60 million people's careers in the US, including those of 10.8 million people with a bachelor's degree.

Its findings present a bleak outlook for new graduates hoping that a degree will guarantee them significantly better opportunities.

While college graduates typically earn more than those with only a high-school education, "a sizable share of graduates do not experience the economic outcome they expected from earning a bachelor's degree," the report said.


The difference in pay is significant. Underemployed graduates earn about 25% more than workers with only a high school diploma.

But that's far less than they would make if they had found a job that requires a degree. People working college-level jobs earn 88% more than those with only a high school education, the report said.

That means that the typical graduate working a college-level job earns around 50% more than an underemployed graduate, it added.

Most underemployed graduates are in sales and office administration

For graduates working high school-level jobs five years after finishing college, the most common occupations are clerk (1.09 million graduates), sales supervisor (1 million), retail sales worker (759,000), salesperson (611,000), and secretary (602,000).

Additionally, 370,000 of these graduates work in food and beverage services, while another 350,000 work in construction, per the report. At least 4.5 million more graduates work other types of high school-level jobs.


What you studied also matters, the researchers said. They found that fields requiring quantitative reasoning, such as engineering (26%), finance and accounting (29%), and computer science (36%), had the lowest five-year underemployment rates.

Health-related work, including nursing, had the lowest underemployment rate, with only 23% of graduates not working college-level jobs five years after finishing their bachelor's.

Conversely, public safety and security (68%), recreation and wellness studies (60%), and marketing and business management (57%) had the highest five-year underemployment rates in the US.

It's hard to get out of underemployment

If a graduate starts their career underemployed, they're also 3.5 times more likely to stay underemployed 10 years later, the report added.

"The first job following college graduation is critically important for most individuals," the researchers wrote.


About 27% of underemployed graduates eventually advance to college-level jobs in the next 10 years. But for every 100 graduates, 45 will still be underemployed a decade after earning their degrees, the report said.

On the other hand, around 21% of graduates who start their careers in a college-level job eventually fall into underemployment by the 10-year mark.

Getting an internship in your field of study vastly improves your chances of getting a college-level job, the report said.

Those with internships before graduating had a 48.5% lower chance of being underemployed in their first year of working, researchers said.

But only 29% of college graduates secure a paid internship before they finish school, the report said, urging policymakers and universities to push students toward such opportunities.


Paid internships, they wrote, "offer a proven route to college-level employment."

The researchers also encouraged schools to provide personalized career coaching, which they said is increasingly showing itself to be useful for students.

"Students deserve to understand what steps they can take to reduce underemployment risk," the report said.

However, the current ratio of students to career services staff at US colleges is 1 to 2,263, the report added.