Are 50% of college graduates unemployed or underemployed?

House Republicans yesterday held a “press conference” (less than 11 minutes) in which I heard two crazy statistics. Each quote is paired with the unidentified Republican Congresswoman who said it:


Recent college grads still are having a very difficult time finding a job. In fact their unemployment is nearly 25%.


Today 50% of college graduates can’t find a job or are underemployed, that’s one in every two graduates.

The first one is just completely wrong. The second one may be just completely misleading (except insofar as 50% is one in two).

I doubt it, but it’s possible they were referring to this paper by Thomas Spreen in the February Monthly Labor Review. Spreen used data from the 2007-2011 October CPS surveys. That’s the month the CPS collects education information in detail, and he calculated the unemployment rates for people who had graduated colleges in the same calendar year. The rates were very high, and did at one point – for men only, in 2009 – reach more than 25%, as shown here:


By 2011 it fell to 16% for men and 11% for women. We should interpret these number cautiously, however, as they are based on quite small samples. According to Spreen, in 2011 the October CPS only included 440 people ages 20-29 who completed their BA degrees that year. Figure about 200 of them were men, and you’re talking about roughly 30 unemployed male recent college graduates. Granted 2009 was the worst year so a spike is plausible, you still need to put a pretty wide confidence interval around that number.

Anyway, because the Republicans used this phrase “or are underemployed,” which is not in the Spreen paper, I suspect the source of these talking points was this 13-month-old AP story, titled “Half of recent college grads underemployed or jobless, analysis says,” or some other version of it. “Underemployed” here means working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree. The number “unemployed” is not given. Those are two pretty different things and should probably never be combined. But Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic, trying to read between the lines, wrote,

Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the data the AP was working with. But their analysis implies that about a quarter of the post-collegiate population is outright unemployed.

That’s not crazy if you were writing about just men for 2009 (and remember most college graduates are women), but Weissman was writing in 2012 about 2011. He might not have all the data the AP had, but he – and you – have what we need to check unemployment rates using the IPUMS CPS data extractor. That will give you March CPS survey data (not the October survey, which identified graduates in the last year, but good for ballparking). It’s pretty easy:

Choose “Analyze data online,” then “Analyze all March samples 1962-2012,” then fill out your table request. Based on the definition given of “recent” college graduates as people under age 25 with a BA, this is what I did:


That gives me employment status, by sex, for years 1993-2012, among people with BA degree (no more, no less), age 15-24 (hardly any are under 20), who are not currently attending school. Here are the percentages unemployed from that:

colgradunempOkay, so nowhere near 25% unemployed. The worst it was for men was 10.9% in 2012, for women 6.4%. (And note these are based on samples of more than 500 men and 800 women in recent years.) Shockingly high unemployment for college graduates, of course. And it’s interesting that it’s higher for those who graduated within the last few months (what the MLR paper showed) than it is for those who graduated sometime within the last few years (the under-25 grouping I used).

The underemployment thing may be important, but there’s not enough information here to evaluate it.

Listening to the press conference on the radio, I naïvely expected one of the reporters to ask, “Excuse me, did you just say the unemployment rate for recent college graduates is 25%?”

Anyway, thanks for listening.


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4 responses to “Are 50% of college graduates unemployed or underemployed?

  1. Reblogged this on AS THE CROW FLIES and commented:
    What we should really worry about is continued under/un employment for young people who pay upwards of $100,000 to $300,000 for the 4-5 years in college.

  2. “‘Underemployed’ here means working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree. The number ‘unemployed’ is not given. Those are two pretty different things and should probably never be combined.”

    That word can easily be misunderstood but the combination is still an interesting measure of how useful a college degree is. Both unemployed and underemployed are not using their degree professionally.

  3. Pingback: What current demographic facts do you need to know? | Family Inequality

  4. Pingback: 22 Current Demographic Facts That Everyone Should Know -

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