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Moving Home: When College Grads Face Uncertain Futures

First Posted: 05/24/2011 8:59 am Updated: 05/10/2012 12:17 am

LANSDALE, Pa. -- One midnight in April, Sabrina Malik pulls her red Chevy Blazer into her mother's asphalt driveway, removes the keys from the ignition, and stops to take a deep breath.

Alone in the darkness, a sense of defeat courses through her body -- disappointment about her past and uncertainty about what lies ahead. This, she thinks to herself, is surely what failure feels like.

Six years ago, Malik fled this town for Syracuse University. Since graduating in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in art history, she has yet to find a decent job.

She hadn't planned on moving back home and, at the age of 23, never expected to return to her mother's house for an extended and open-ended period of time.

"At times, it really feels very personal, it really feels like I've failed," says Malik, standing in the kitchen of her mother's two-story stone house and recalling the eight weeks since she returned home. She's wearing khaki shorts and white socks that come up to her ankles. Glasses frame her brown eyes and wavy chestnut hair grazes her shoulders. "Your dream is a very personal thing and when you can't do it, it feels like you're being told that you're not talented enough and that you haven't worked hard enough."

After graduating from college, Malik moved to Boston. There, she worked as a nanny, sold books, and waited tables -- a series of dead-end jobs that didn't pay more than the minimum wage, didn't require a college degree, and weren't remotely related to what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Two months ago, she ran out of money and drove home from Boston to Lansdale, a middle-class suburb north of Philadelphia, her car brimming with the contents of post-college life: canned food, twinkle lights, potted plants. A dozen of her paintings, stacked to the ceiling, kept hitting the back of her head. When a gas station attendant in New Jersey asked why she was moving and where she was headed, Malik didn't know quite how to respond.

She's hardly alone. Malik is part of a generation of 20-somethings that's experiencing what it's like to graduate from college, move back in with your parents, and then get stuck there.

To be sure, having a college degree still matters. Nationwide, while the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent, the jobless rate for college graduates 25 years and older is 4.5 percent. By contrast, 20 to 24-year-olds who only have a high school diploma are contending with an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent.

While college graduates typically navigate periods of economic decline far better than those lacking such credentials, the past few years have still taken an especially brutal toll on them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for younger workers with a college degree has more than doubled since the recession began four years ago -- from 3.5 percent in April of 2007 to 6.4 percent in April of this year.

For college graduates under the age of 25, finding stable work is a particular challenge. According to Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University, about half, or 3.2 million, are "underutilized"  -- meaning they're unemployed, working part-time, or working a job outside of the college labor market, such as bartending or waiting tables.

Added to the lack of jobs is an increased amount of debt. Student loan debt recently outpaced credit card debt in terms of total amounts owed by borrowers. By year's end, it is on track to surpass a trillion dollars, according to Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student financial aid who runs the websites and

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, an independent, nonprofit organization that works to make higher education more affordable, the average graduate finishes school with $24,000 of debt -- though many struggle to repay far more.

Like Malik, many 20-somethings are experiencing early adulthood as one long pause in their lives, affecting not only conventional coming-of-age milestones such as becoming financially independent, but more deeply personal things as well -- like their hopes and their dreams.