A college diploma has long been the ticket to a good job, but the deepest economic slump in decades has dampened the dreams of many U.S. college seniors.
The U.S. Census Bureau says 1.6 million college degrees will be awarded this year, a figure that has climbed steadily. Many depart school with expectations of making it on their own and with hopes of repaying student loans that average $22,500.
For seniors like Amanda Haimes at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, the drumbeat of bad news about the weak job market is worrying, even scary.
"People are saying this is the worst year to graduate, ever," she said in a telephone interview.
Confronted by a prolonged recession and a rising 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the highest U.S. rate in a quarter-century, some college seniors have grown "so anxious" and are not looking for a job, said University of Wisconsin, Madison, career services director Leslie Kohlberg.
Many seniors plan to go straight to graduate school to get a leg up while waiting for the recession to end, in some cases creating a glut of applicants.
A surging number of graduating seniors are vying for paid and unpaid internships and positions with nonprofit groups, and applying to the government-run Peace Corps, Teach for America and Americorps.
All the programs have more applicants than available spots, President Barack Obama said in a speech April 21 in which he signed legislation to quadruple to 250,000 the number of position in Americorps.
"They're going to be making subsistence wages, but they're doing something very gratifying until the job market improves," University of Wisconsin career counselor Randy Wallar said.
At campus job fairs, some students come away disappointed at the few positions offered as employers have cut back recruiting budgets. But employers make an effort to have a presence so as to be in position to compete for workers once the economy recovers.
The huge American baby boom generation will be retiring in coming years, and the generation emerging from college is only one-third the size so competition for their services promises to be fierce.