05/01/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

The College Double Whammy

What's a bright, ambitious young person supposed to do to get ahead? "Go to college" used to be the default right answer, since graduates historically have enjoyed higher earnings and better hiring prospects. If that's what succeeded for our parents and grandparents, why not for the current generation? Today, however, dramatic shifts are taking place that are changing the value proposition of traditional college advice. Now, college students and recent graduates are caught in an excruciating double bind, and their parents are also feeling the pain.

The middle class is teetering on the brink, economically, and then outrageously high college tuition comes along to push them over the edge and deliver the knockout blow to family finances. That's only one half of the college double whammy, however. The second blow arrives when, after four (or five or six) years of financial sacrifice, a graduate can't even find a job worthy of the enormous investment. That feels like getting kicked in the ribs when you're already lying flat on your back.

As the parent of a current college student and one soon to go, I can honestly say that I wouldn't mind the high cost of tuition nearly so much if I really believed that paying it would ensure my children a bright future and financial security. On the other hand, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment wouldn't be so hard to face if college costs were affordable in the first place. But both together? Unreasonably high costs and poor job prospects? This is an unacceptable double whammy -- a devastating one-two punch that is leaving most families reeling and disoriented.

Editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey recently published a comic titled, "The Hunger Games 2: College Graduation," in which a cap and gown-wearing faculty member tells two stunned, diploma-bearing graduates on stage during commencement: "Only one of you will get a job." That's hardly hyperbolic: an analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press confirms that one in two new college graduates is either jobless or underemployed in positions beneath their level of education. As the line in the movie goes, "May the odds be ever in your favor." You're going to need good luck -- and plenty of it -- when confronting the worst employment odds for young people in more than sixty years!

Of course, not going to college isn't a good option, either. As poor as the hiring prospects are for current college graduates, they're even worse for those with lesser levels of education. Unemployment rates for high school graduates and dropouts are roughly double those of college graduates. For most college-bound students today, their options feel a lot like: you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

So what are the best tactics for those approaching college now? Well, first off, choose a major that is likely to be in demand when you graduate. The spring hiring season is not currently shaping up to be any better than last year's, but some degrees are more popular than others and can improve your chances. The employment picture is brighter for students majoring in science, education and health rather than the arts and humanities. Also, before signing on for a four-year college degree, be sure to investigate two-year training paths that might offer a more direct route to the workforce at a lower entry cost. There are some surprisingly good opportunities to be found on that path less taken.

Then, for those committed to the Bachelor's Degree, prepare to deliver a powerful one-two counterpunch of your own. First, you need to do everything possible to minimize your direct college costs and second, you must maximize your employment odds. This means choosing the most affordable college options, moving through the program as quickly as possible and limiting loans. Meanwhile, students must network like crazy, seek out practical summer internships, and get paid work experience on their resumes.

Simply going to college is not enough to take care of your employment prospects, anymore -- even if you're at a highly selective institution. Beating the unemployment odds is going to require more proactive steps than simply showing up for class, handing in your work, and paying your tuition and fees. It's going to require students to pay closer attention to shifts in the workforce and to take strategic steps to prepare for emerging opportunities. It's also going to require brutal realism and facing facts. Anything less, and you risk becoming another statistic among the college-educated casualties of the aftermath of the Great Recession.