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It still pays to earn a college degree. That is, if you get the right one. Georgetown University published a report Wednesday that looked into this dilemma.
"The labor market demands more specialization. So, the game has changed," says Anthony Carnevale, the report's co-author and director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.
Carnevale says students probably aren't choosing the right degrees because they haven't been given the right guidance.
Chasing The Elusive American Dream
He says that given slow hiring in the current economy, some industries that sound promising aren't — like biomedical engineering. That's what Sandra Mantilla majored in at Florida International University.
Mantilla's parents came from Colombia with the American dream in mind: Go to college, get a degree and a good job. Engineering seemed to be solid career choice. She intended to work after her undergraduate degree for a few years and then return to school for a master's or doctoral degree.
She's had internships at NASA, the National Institutes of Health and at two universities. But she's been looking for a job since November. Despite job fairs and what seemed to be a few good interviews, she hasn't found work. The plan has changed, and now Mantilla intends to go straight back to school.
She says she doesn't think she had enough information to set realistic expectations when she first went to college.
"It was a little bit hard for me, when I was in high school, to get the guidance because I was a first-generation college student, so I didn't really have all the information," she says. "On top of that, there was the language barrier — I was still learning English."
If she could go back, she says she would have done more research and maybe even held off on going to college to save up money. Her former high school classmates who don't have four-year degrees have moved up, working as medical assistants or retail managers.
"It's sad to see that a lot of people who I went to high school with, who didn't go to college, are doing much better than I am," Mantilla says.
She's not optimistic, she says, but her parents and fiance are.
"Whenever I get extremely negative, they are the ones keeping me going," she says. "And I just try not to stay still and not doing anything. I keep looking every morning, I sign up for job announcements, I get emails and I keep applying and I'm hoping that one day something will come my way."
Carnevale says Mantilla's lack of guidance is not uncommon.
"The United States really has no counseling apparatus," he says. "We have  to 400 students for every counselor in high school."
Meanwhile, Carnevale says, college guidance offices are generally geared toward fulfilling curriculum requirements rather than shaping long-term career goals and expectations.
'If I Had A Time Machine'
Timothy Ryan also could have used some extra advice. He has a bachelor's degree in communications from Rowan University in New Jersey.
Carnevale says unemployment for communications majors is "relatively high" at about 8 percent. Ryan says he had no idea.
"To be honest, if I had a time machine, I wouldn't mind going back right now and telling myself, 'Think otherwise!' " he says.
Ryan tries not to think about his debt — he has about $41,000 worth with $2,000 accrued in interest.
His mother has a disability and his father is retired, and neither of them finished college. Now they're living off Social Security, and Ryan says for them, "that's just enough to get by."
Ryan has found himself on the unfortunate side of what Carnevale calls "two classes of students."
"One [class] is the people who go through their entire post-secondary education with no debt — their parents pay," Carnevale says. "And then we have a second class of students who are accruing enormous debt and also working."
The circumstances for the latter group reduce graduation rates, he says. If they do graduate, Carnevale says, they have huge debt, which "influences their prospects mightily."
In Search Of Solutions
Carnevale says "the answer to our problems" is a piece of legislation known as the "Student Right to Know Before You Go Act."
The bill, introduced in May, is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. It would require universities to disclose the earnings of alumni and the nature of their employment to prospective students.
"It is time in the American education system, given its cost, given the fact that most of us now require it to get a decent job, to align it much more carefully with job prospects," he says.
But that doesn't mean young people should stop exploring and learning in their own time, Carnevale says.
"It is absolutely the prerogative of the young to find their way as best they can and to change their mind," he says. "It is an exploratory process — in school and in the labor market."
However, if the goal of higher education is to "help people live more fully in their time," as Carnevale puts it, they need more information.
"We don't want them feeling their way in the dark," he says.