I graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton in May 1992, with a B.A. in political science. Things felt uncertain then. Early in my first semester in 1988, my poli-sci teaching assistant calmly explained why she was a communist and how the revolution was on its way; by the time I graduated the Berlin Wall was a memory. The recent recession was just wrapping up and it seemed likely that the Reagan / Bush administration would continue for at least four more years. The value of a liberal arts degree in the job market was quickly demonstrated by my first four quasi-full time jobs after graduation: camp counselor; sporting goods salesman; waiter in a rib restaurant; camp counselor again.
The class of ’92 also fell smack-dab in the middle of the “Generation X” demographic, so people like me were fed a steady of magazine articles and movies describing our alleged apathy, cynicism, and fondness for flannel. It wasn’t all b.s.; as a younger member of the generation, Chuck Klosterman, once observed with only slight exaggeration:
Twenty-somethings in the nineties were by and large depressed about the future, mostly because (a) they knew there was very little to look forward to, and (b)they were obsessed with staring into the eyes of their own self-absorbed sadness. There are no myths about Generation X. It’s all true.
But this begs a question that is never asked enough: Were we right, in retrospect? Things worked out fine for me, I went to grad school, got a job, got married, got a better job, made more money, stayed married, bought a house, travelled to some places, and so on and so forth. So did almost all of my friends from high school and college.
But of course you can’t responsibly generalize from your own experiences or those of people you happen to know. To really answer that question, you’d have to go to the trouble of identifying a large, statistically representative sample–say roughly 10,000 people who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1992 or 1993–gather a lot of baseline data about each person, and then diligently keep track of them as the years passed, following up with more detailed surveys every few years or so for the next decade. It would cost a lot money and you wouldn’t really know the answer to the question for a good 15 years, which is roughly 14.5 years after the magazines and movies got bored and started talking about something else.
Thankfully, the federal government did just that, and released the latest results today. This is from the National Center for Education Statistics’ “Baccalaureate and Beyond” longitudinal study, which began with students who finished college during the 92-93 academic year and followed up in 1994, 1997, and 2003. I’m not sure there are any blockbuster findings, but in a way that’s the point: studies like this do mundane but crucial work of providing empirical foundations for our sense of things, clarifying and updating the common wisdom. A few highlights:
- People go to school so they can work. Roughly two-thirds of the original grads majored in what the report calls “career-oriented” fields: business, education, engineering, health, etc., as opposed to “academic” fields like my poli-sci degree, arts and humanities, math, biology, etc. While colleges rightly see themselves as much more than vocational, the plain truth is that most students go to college with pretty straightforward ambitions to get a decent job and thus life.
- Things are different for men and women. At the the three follow-up points–94, 97, and 03–the percent of men who were neither employed nor enrolled in grad school was 6, 4, and 5 percent, respectively. For women the numbers were 7% in 1994, 8% in 1997, and 18 percent in 2003. As people get older, marry, and start families, the arcs of their careers and lives continue to diverge by gender.
- Things get better as you get older. The average graduates’ salary nearly doubled from 1994 to 2003, from $30,800 to $60,600, in constant 2003 dollars. From graduation to 1994, 29% of graduates were unemployed at least once. That percentage fell to 22% in 94 -97, and 13 percent from 97-03, despite the latter time period being twice as long. Among those with a full-time job, the percent in jobs they considered to have definite career potential went from 44% in ’94 to 59% in 97 and 90% in ’03.
- For college grads, the business of America is business–and education. In 2003, 28% of working 92/93 grads were “business workers and managers,” while another 19% were “educators.”
- There’s more than one way to get a good job. Career-oriented majors were quicker to get a job and less likely to be unemployed, but by the time 2003 came the academic majors had mostly gotten through grad school and caught up; there was no statistically significant difference in 2003 earnings between career and academic majors, after controlling for other factors.
What I and my fellow Gen-X grads didn’t know, of course, was that our pessimism was mostly unwarranted. We knew were post- a lot of things: modern, Cold War, etc. We just didn’t know what we were pre-, yet. Luckily, it turned out to be prosperity; the economy was just beginning a historic expansion during which nearly all the new money went to college graduates like us. In general, if you made it through college, things worked out, if not in the short term than probably the mid- and most likely the long. All the more reason to make sure that more students have similar opportunities today.