College graduates in the class of 2008 had it rough. They started college when the economy was thriving and took on more student loan debt than anyone before them.
Then, they graduated just as the Great Recession rushed in. The Class of 2008 was blindsided by an economic reality that they hadn't planned on and weren't prepared to handle.
Back in 2009, a representative survey of American four-year college graduates found they had a 9 percent unemployment rate.
Now that same survey, conducted by the Department of Education, has caught up with the Class of 2008 again. The results are a little more hopeful this time around — but they show that the class of 2008 is still lagging when compared with college graduates as a whole. The economic scars from graduating into a recession are deep, even five years later.
1) Unemployment rates are better, but they're still higher than for college graduates overall
Over all, 6.7 percent of the Class of 2008 was unemployed in 2012, the survey of 17,000 graduates found. That's a big improvement over 2009's 9 percent unemployment rate, and it was below the national average that year.
But that doesn't mean it's good news. The unemployment rate is supposed to be lower than average for college graduates. The reason a college degree remains a valuable investment, even as student debt rises, is that it's supposed to help you in the labor market.
Four years after graduating, relatively recent graduates hadn't caught up with other adults — even the group closest to their age. Adults aged 25 to 34 with at least a bachelor's degree had an unemployment rate of 4 percent in 2012.
2) In real terms, salaries were lower in 2012 than they were for young adult college graduates a decade earlier
Just over two-thirds — 71 percent — of the Class of 2008 were working full-time, at least 35 hours per week, in 2012. But those full-time workers were making an average annual salary of $52,500.
The median salary was lower: $46,000. This indicates that the recession's first graduating class took a salary hit as well — that's 8 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than college graduates aged 25 to 34 earned in 2002.
3) For health care majors, the economy is great. For social science majors, the recession never ended.
Just how much the recession hurt depends on what graduates majored in. The economic picture looks rosy for 2008 graduates with a degree in a health care field: they had an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent in 2012. In other STEM fields, the unemployment rate was 5 percent.
But even in 2012, social science majors were near double-digit unemployment; their rate was 9.6 percent. Humanities majors weren't far behind, at 9 percent. That's slightly better than the 13 percent unemployment rate they had in 2009. But it's not a healthy job market by any means.
4) Older students and for-profit college graduates might not have gotten the labor market boost they hoped for
Students in their 30s who earn bachelor's degrees, or students who go to for-profit colleges, are often the ones who see education as economically transformative. They're not enrolled in college to live in the dorms and have a coming-of-age experience; they're there because they want an education or need a degree.
Unfortunately, they're also the graduates who fared the worst. It's hard to say why — they might have attended less prestigious colleges overall, or have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have other strikes against them that the survey doesn't measure. But the unemployment rate for people who graduated after age 30 (who were at least 34 in 2012, when the survey was administered) was 9.6 percent.
For-profit colleges had a higher rate than public or nonprofit colleges, at 11.9 percent. But graduates from for-profit colleges who did find full-time work were earning a higher salary — $51,000 per year — than graduates from other sectors of higher education.