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The 1.7 million members of the Class of 2011 witnessed, within the four-year span of their college careers, one of the greatest bull markets in United States history and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Last spring, they shed their caps and gowns and joined a kind of B.A. bread line. Unemployment among recent liberal-arts graduates, at 9.4 percent, was higher than the national average, and student-loan debt, at an average of nearly $25,000, had reached record levels. Worse still, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was reporting that only 5 of the 20 jobs projected to grow fastest over the coming decade would require a bachelor’s degree. Though the statistics still show that a college degree correlates with both higher income and lower unemployment in the long run, diplomas didn’t seem very valuable when they were handed out last May.
Graduating seniors at schools like Drew University in Madison, N.J., have felt the stresses of the job market acutely. For all its merits — including a much-admired theater department and a prestigious Wall Street internship program — Drew ranks 94th among 178 private liberal-arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list. The middle of the collegiate pack is not where you want to be when you’re competing for a diminishing number of entry-level jobs.
Members of Drew’s Class of ’11 are typical of their peers nationally in that their success in the job market seems to have less to do with their G.P.A.’s or their persistence and more to do with their family connections, fields of study, networking skills and luck. How else to account for the unemployed Phi Beta Kappa waiting by a silent phone? Or the anthropology major who is forgoing grad school to become a dog groomer? Or the English major who can’t earn enough money to make the monthly payment on her $128,000 student loan? (Drew is unusually expensive; tuition plus room and board run more than $50,000 a year.) Equals on campus, the 309 members of Drew’s Class of ’11 are already being divided into the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Seven months after graduation, The Times Magazine spoke with 226 of them about their rough journey into the real world.