Elizabeth Pedigo, 21, of Toledo, Ohio, graduated high school in 2008 but has struggled at college.
Right now she's taking a year off from her two-year general studies program at Owens Community College.
"I wasn't very good at being at college," she said. "I just couldn't finish the assignments."
Now living with her parents, Pedigo is currently not working but plans to seek out a job at a nearby Kroger's or McDonald's.
Pedigo is one of many recent high school graduates who have been left behind. Three out of four recent high school graduates not attending college full-time do not have a full-time job, according to a study released on Wednesday by Carl Van Horn, Cliff Zukin and Mark Szeltner at Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Many of these recent high school graduates, from the classes of 2006 through 2011, are too unprepared to finish college or work at a job that offers professional advancement, Van Horn said.
Among recent high school graduates not in college, 30 percent are jobless and actively looking for work, according to the Rutgers report; another 14 percent are jobless but not looking for work.
In contrast, an Economic Policy Institute report showed in 2007 an unemployment rate of just 17.5 percent among recent high school graduates not attending college.
Today's new college graduates are snatching the low-end jobs in retail, restaurants, sales and offices that used to be the domain of recent high school graduates, Van Horn said.
Recent high school graduates "don't have a trade, and they don't have any advanced technical skills, so they've got no upward mobility," Van Horn said. "They're going to struggle to form families, to have housing, to be financially independent from their parents, to essentially achieve a family-sustainable income, unless they can get some form of post-secondary education."
Eight in 10 recent high school graduates not attending college said that their first job was just one to get them by, according to the Rutgers study. On average, their first job barely paid wages above the federal minimum, and the wages of those employed are barely enough to keep them out of poverty. Seventy-one percent of those with jobs are performing temporary work; just 8 percent of respondents called their current job a career.
The struggles of these young people can hurt everyone else, too, Van Horn said. A lowered level of economic opportunity translates into less innovation and lower consumer spending to motivate companies to hire workers. Struggling high school grads also will have trouble taking care of themselves and their children, which might result in taxpayer expenses to cover food stamps, emergency room care and other social services.
Pedigo is worried about whether she will ever be able to find a job or move out of her parents' home. "It's kind of embarrassing," Pedigo said. "I should be trying to take care of myself."
While she did not feel passionate about any of her college studies, one area presented less difficulty for her. "Math has always been easy," she said. Pedigo is not sure she'll return to college, though.
Van Horn, who is the founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, offered his suggestions for remedying unemployment among new high school grads: more government support to help college students finish college, additional technical training in high school and increased financial support so that more low- and middle-income students can attend college.
"If the country is going to be successful, you need to have a smarter workforce, and you need to have a better educated workforce that fills the jobs available and also creates new enterprise," Van Horn said.This story has been updated to provide graduation year details for the Rutgers study statistics cited.