“I don’t have any concrete plans for what I’m doing after school,” Chloe admits. “That’s pretty scary.”
Her friend Jayna laughs and nods her agreement. “Plus, independence is scary. I do see myself as an independent person, but it’s scary to actually do it.”
As this conversation unfolds, four girls sit around the living room of an apartment—curled up on a secondhand couch, sprawled on the floor and perched on the edge of a purple butterfly chair that was a cast-off from someone’s childhood bedroom.
The plain apartment walls are plastered with photographs of friends and posters of popular TV shows. Two small, unused piñatas hang from the ceiling, and stacks of textbooks are piled high on the end table. The room has the casual, slapdash feel that unmistakably marks it as a college apartment.
The four girls are Jayna, Jess, Sam and Chloe. They’re college seniors, but not for much longer. With the exception of Jess, who’s staying until next December, this is their last semester on campus.
Chloe utters a long groan and lets her head drop to her chest. “I’m ready to be done. I’m tired of having my hand held by professors. I’m ready to not have homework. I’m ready to have a job that I’ll be able to leave at work and not bring home.”
“I’m excited about graduating,” Sam agrees. “I feel like I’m ready. It’s time.”
For these four and others, graduation is not just a time of excitement. Graduation is also a time of intense fear and often paralyzing doubt about an uncertain future that looms closer every day.
The fears held by these soon-to-be graduates cover a wide spectrum of topics: Fears about not being able to find a job. About not liking that job. About finding a place to live that is affordable, yet doesn’t have bed bugs. About disappointing parents. About becoming independent. About not making enough money to afford daily essentials. About paying off student loans. About never seeing close friends after leaving college.
One thing that all the girls agree on is the difficulty in narrowing down what they actually want to do. Between them, their majors are English, Digital Media, Applied Health Science and Elementary and Special Education. While education is a major that typically allows for a smooth flow between college and the only possible job field, the other majors feature a much less linear path and allow for flexibility to explore multiple avenues. Although this flexibility can be a bonus, it also makes things even more overwhelming for new graduates.
Jess, who will be graduating after four and a half years with a degree in digital media, went through numerous major changes. As a freshman, she eagerly dove into an athletic training major. She quickly discovered it was not for her, and contemplated a transition to history before deciding to switch to marketing. Again, she felt the major didn’t fit, and changed for the last time to digital media.
Now, as she looks forward to graduation, she realizes that her calling may lie down other roads. In the months following her graduation, Jess is seriously considering attending beauty school. As an avid makeup artist for many years, she explains this was always a dream of hers that she put off to the side to go to college. But what happens to her very expensive bachelor’s degree then?
“I could see myself in a career with both of them,” Jess muses. “After spending four and a half years to get this degree, it’s frustrating to think that I am considering going back for something totally different. It’s a big decision, to know whether or not that’s something I actually want to pursue, or just keep as an option.”
It’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal says the average college student that graduated in 2015 has a student loan debt of more than $35,000. The fear of finding a job as soon as possible to begin paying loads of debt are very real and causing student stress levels to skyrocket as their final semester rolls around.
For these students, however, it is not enough to simply find a job. Worry runs rampant that even if they find a job, they will dislike it and be unhappy: “I’m terrified of the unknown,” Chloe says. “I think I know what I want, but because it is unknown, I don’t know if I’ll like it.”
What intensifies these fears is the concern that these students are often not taken seriously by authority figures and established adults in their lives: “[My parents] are understanding to a point, but they’re kind of dismissive,” Jess says. “They tell me that’s just a part of life that everyone has to go through. They tell you it’s in the Lord’s hands, and all that. It’s not that I don’t get that, but I think that’s easier said than done.”
“My parents are very supportive and kind,” Chloe agrees. “They’re nice people. It’s just that my Dad went to college as an engineer, so he was able to get a job. My mom just started working straight out of high school. So I’m in an entirely different boat from either of them. They try to reassure me, but I don’t think they understand from my perspective.”
Jayna adds that her parents are trying to be supportive, but have no real grasp of the situation facing young graduates today. “I think the world has changed around us,” she says. “Things are more competitive than they were before.”
“I think a college degree is a lot less marketable than it was,” Sam says. “Jobs want a college degree and something else. It’s a lot harder to go into the job market now, knowing that I have this degree that I worked really hard for, but most companies want two or more years of experiences and all these unpaid internships.”
Sam’s concern reflects the fact that droves of graduates continue to flood the job market at an alarming rate. Researchers and employers alike say the number of workers holding bachelor’s degrees continues to increase while the number of jobs that require a bachelor’s degree remains the same.
Jayna explains the positions she’s encountering in her job search require either a master’s degree or nothing more than a high school diploma. “It’s just annoying,” she says. “If the jobs I want to do don’t even care that I have this degree, then why did I spend all those thousands of dollars to get it? It just doesn’t make sense.”
These fears and others are just a few that keep soon-to-be-graduates up at night, tossing and turning as they worry about what the next year will hold. All of these graduates say multiple times how they’re sure everything will work out in the end. But they also make it clear this assurance did nothing to allay their fears, as they spend their last few weeks in their cobbled apartments, desperately trying to hold on to the last bit of certainty in their lives.
“It’s out of our hands, and it’s such a big transition,” Jess says with a shrug and a half-smile. “I mean, how could we not worry about that?”