What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Graduate From College

Debt, shock, your old bedroom at home.

Villanova University’s seniors graduated last weekend. By all accounts, it was a wonderful ceremony held on a glorious day. Students were celebrating the milestone with big hugs, fist bumps and high fives. A particularly joyous photo of the ceremony caught my eye and got me to wondering: What the hell are they so happy about? Clearly, they have no idea that their college years will never be duplicated for unencumbered freedom to search, learn, develop and make mistakes with minimum consequences. College is an environment that offers a buffer, a safe haven for growth without many of the burdens of being a working adult—financial obligations, responsibilities of family and the routine of full-time work.

A recent study from Rutgers paints an alarming picture for college graduates. Since 2010, only 54 percent of graduates aged 18 to 24 are now employed full-time, and they are starting at salaries about $3,000 less than graduates pre-recession. Only about half of last year’s graduates working full-time are in jobs that even require a college degree. Unemployment for the 20- to 24-year age group is 13.8 percent nationally and, here in Philadelphia, 19.4 percent of our 2010 graduates are unemployed. And where are these kids living? At home, of course. And maybe that’s karma; experts say this millennial generation has been coddled and helicoptered until they have a skewed idea of what they’re worth and how hard they’ll have to work to attain their goals. Mom and Dad are getting them back so they can coddle and helicopter some more.

And these kids are in debt. Lots of debt. Nationally, college debt exceeds $1 trillion. A college education is more expensive than ever, and costs just keep going up. Elite schools cost well over $50,000 a year to attend, and plenty of students are willing to put themselves into almost insurmountable debt to say they went to an Ivy League school. Sixty-two percent of students finance all or part of their education. The average debt, after graduation, is $23,000, but for 8.6 percent of grads, the amount is higher than $50,000. Philadelphia-area graduates owe closer to an average of $28,000, the fifth-highest in the nation. Welcome to the grown-up world. What a shame to be in such debt right out of the gate. There’s much talk these days about assessing the value of a college degree. The idea of attending the best school a student and his or her family can afford rather than financing elsewhere is catching on. In turn, schools are upgrading campuses to attract students, passing those costs on as tuition hikes. Insanity, for sure.

So, graduates, enjoy the festivities, the pomp and circumstance. Go out and celebrate with family and friends. Toss back a few stiff ones; you’re going to need it. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.