Meet the COVID-19 college graduates

Left out of the stimulus bill, Class of 2020 college grads are stumbling into a job market that isn’t ready for them.


April 7, 2020

On March 11, I opened my inbox to find an email from my soon-to-be-alma-mater, Pomona College: In light of COVID-19, I had a week to vacate the campus.

The next few days were a blur. Between packing, booking a flight back home to Connecticut, and expediting goodbyes to close friends, I didn’t have much time to process the news.

The full weight of the crisis has since set in. And many of America’s 3.9m college students set to graduate in a few months, including myself, have a question: What will it mean for our job prospects?

A few months ago, the stock market was at an all-time high, and experts were predicting the hottest job market in 50 years. Now, with businesses shuttering around the country and mass layoffs just beginning, the next phase of my life — landing a full-time job — seems further away than ever before.

The economic morale of my generation was low long before this pandemic. We’ve been saddled with $1.6 trillion in student loans and tuition rates. In recent years, as the overall US unemployment rate declined sharply for all workers, the jobless rate for recent college graduates had flatlined, with far worse prospects for students of color.

Many students — especially those from lower-income or disadvantaged backgrounds — were already plotting out every little detail of their finances just to stay afloat. They foraged loans and financial aid, cobbled together income from multiple jobs, and found roommates to save money on housing. They made it work. 

Now, a public health (and potential economic) crisis has run those plans through the shredder. For 2020 grads, the path forward will likely be a lot more winding.

The precision of paying for college

Before COVID-19 ever existed, Chyna (who asked to withhold her last name to protect her privacy) formulated a plan.

It goes like this: Once she wraps up her degree in theater design and technology at the University of Arkansas next May, she’s going to move to Chicago, freelance for a couple of years, and then enroll in an MFA program to become a professional set designer. 

Chyna, pictured with her nephew, hopes to find work as a set designer after graduating from the University of Arkansas in a few months (Courtesy photo)

Chyna is a meticulous planner. She told me she thinks 17 steps ahead, but that’s also because she doesn’t have a choice. Her mom is a middle school counselor, and her dad works for an airplane parts manufacturer. She lives with them in Oklahoma. With the help of financial aid, Chyna is paying her own way to a bachelor’s degree.

To get there, she’s patched together multiple jobs: 

  • $110 a week working in the scene shop at the U of A theater department (11 hours per week at $10/hr) 
  • $30-120 a week hosting kids’ birthday parties in Fayetteville, ($30/party, anywhere from 1-4 parties per week) 
  • When she’s home in Oklahoma, $60-$120 a week working as a server at a rooftop bar.

All of that — usually about $500 per month — only covers Chyna’s rent and a little change. She also had other gigs in the works, including a $1k stipend to design a set for a theater company in Fayetteville.

But these numbers pale in comparison to the ~$100k in loans that Chyna owes.

Sometime in mid-March, local schools closed. The theater company shut its doors. The University of Arkansas switched to Zoom classes and postponed graduation, and Chyna, who has an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, raced home to be with her family.

Even though she isn’t in school, she still owes $450 a month in rent on her apartment in Fayetteville through August. And all of her income streams have hit a standstill. 

Normally, she would try to wrangle a job at home, but because she and her sister are immunocompromised, she isn’t able to leave the house. “I am definitely much more hesitant to go get temporary work,” she said. “I am scared. I don’t know how this virus could affect me.”

A gaping hole in coronavirus stimulus

The buzzed-about $1.2k check going out to eligible Americans matters most to people like Chyna — people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic, or who still owe rent payments each month. But because the stimulus bill excludes adults over the age of 18 who are listed as dependents, Chyna gets nothing. 

In many cases, full-time students like Chyna don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, either. “I feel like they left out one of the most financially vulnerable groups of people,” she says. 

The Hustle

Annie Sullivan, a friend of Chyna’s at Arkansas, isn’t getting a stimulus check, either. A theater major and actress, Sullivan has been saving up to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Her magic number to afford the move: $10k

Sullivan had saved up $4.5k working on campus, and at a smoothie shop in Fayetteville.

Before the pandemic hit, she had plans for the rest: $800 for teaching Fayetteville middle and high schools and teaching about Shakespeare; $500 for performing with a local theater company in June; a few hundred more from small acting gigs she had plans to audition for in her hometown of Dallas, Texas over the summer.

Now she has no idea where to find her next paycheck. 

“It all happened in a span of a week,” said Sullivan. “It’s almost a loss. I have to grieve these things and really emotionally process this because it was such a wrench in my plans.” 

Even if the US were to stabilize the spread of COVID-19 in a few months, she doesn’t have the money to move to Los Angeles. And with coffee shops and restaurants closed indefinitely, Sullivan doesn’t know how easily she’ll be able to find the “survival gigs” that all new actors rely on until they land longer-lasting roles.

Annie Sullivan, left, in a blonde wig and cheerleader costume at a school rendition of Heathers (Courtesy photo)

A friend of mine, Paola, has worked a series of journalism internships, plus a work-study job, while studying at Northwestern University, in Chicago. She’s grappled with abandoning a career in magazine writing — an unstable profession in a crumbling industry.

Her parents, who manufacture glass windows and doors, are considered “essential” workers in Miami. But they are struggling with a lack of orders and Paola doesn’t know how long she will be able to stay at home.

“It felt like everything I worked toward building just vanished overnight,” she told me this week.

The pandemic has already had an impact on my own employment prospects.

A few hours before I started writing this article, I found out that a dream job I’d been vying for since January was not going to work out. Because of COVID-19, the company had decided not to hire for it.

The day before, I learned that another fellowship I had applied for had been scrapped. Some employers point to “the challenges of onboarding interns while everyone is remote;” others cite “the impact of COVID-19 and the uncertainty it has caused broadly.”

Asa Yale junior explained in The New York Times: “I just don’t think we have the luxury to have dreams anymore.” 

We are sorry to inform you that this job is canceled 

According to Stanford researchers, recession graduates not only earn less than their peers for 10 to 15 years but have higher divorce and mortality rates.

During the Great Recession, unemployment peaked at about 10%, but for workers aged 16-24, the unemployment rate was over 19%. The current looming economic catastrophe seems certain to blow out those figures, with some experts projecting an unprecedented 30% unemployment rate.

But the economic collapse has brought a frustration that spans industries: Yelp, Disney, and vast swaths of the retail, transportation, and consulting and services sectors are freezing hiring. Even traditionally stable industries are feeling it. 

The Hustle (Data via Candor)

Gina, a 49-year-old assistant manager at a Family Dollar store in Illinois, is searching for a long-term job for the first time in years. When she was younger, she worked first as a special education teacher, then as a stay-at-home mom of three now-grown kids. 

By 2018, she decided to focus on a field with more stability, and she enrolled in a master’s program in data analytics at Southern New Hampshire University, a popular online college. 

“If I can get some more programming skills under my belt, then I can apply for a job in that field possibly before graduation,” she told me. “That was my original plan.” 

She’s set to graduate this November, after countless 12-hour days spent learning Python and R. Last year, Gina forwent health insurance in order to pay for her degree. Now she’s patching together a job at Family Dollar and Instacart gig work.

But while data analytics is supposed to be one of the sturdiest job markets out there, Gina is starting to get nervous. While some companies are offering remote tech work, she’s worried that this shift will benefit people with experience, who don’t have to be taught complex programming systems from home.  

Breaking the historical wheel 

The “recession graduating class” is a trope that dates back to the 1930s. Historically, news articles have used the same language to describe impacted workers: “offers decreasing” (1958), “shortage of jobs” (1975), and “hiring slowdown” (1979). Not the “freeze” we’re seeing now. 

But any economist will tell you that what we’re living through isn’t really a recession — at least not in the traditional sense. The UN called it “unprecedented”; The Atlantic called it an “ice age.” The conclusions we choose to draw from this crisis will likely transcend the recession patterns that have come to dominate the past two centuries.

The fact that even data analytics students are seeing their prospects shrink is the punctuation on what we all know: This crisis is not normal.

News headlines from 1958, 1975, and 1979 (Newspapers.com)

The Class of 2020, of course, is finding ways to cope.

On Minecraft, students across the country are fashioning buildings in the likeness of their home campuses. A pair of Boston University seniors launched “Quaranteen University” — a server for members of the Class of 2020 that, this May, will host its own in-game graduation.

Pearse Anderson, an Oberlin College senior who wrote about Quaranteen University for The Verge, told me that Quaranteen U. is his “North Star” as he tries to process the end of college. 

Chyna, meanwhile, has invested in a pandemic panic buy: Painting supplies. Back in Oklahoma, she’s holed up in her bedroom teaching her siblings how to paint. “If I think about what’s really going on, that’s when I start to freak out,” she said.

That sort of unconventional resilience in the face of a pandemic is a hallmark of this generation. We’ve always had to stay scrappy.

But a cohort of students who are graduating with historic levels of debt — who have worked, and saved, and plotted every step of their futures in order to find a niche for themselves in this economy — are about to enter a job market that isn’t ready for them.

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