Bleak Future:  68% of Grads Saddled with $40K in Debt With No Jobs in Sight

It’s not easy being a recent college grad in this economic landscape.

According to a new study by Accounting Principals, 68% of recent grads are leaving school with an average of nearly $40,000 of debt and 31% are finding the job prospects so weak they wish they’d chosen a different major.

Student loan debt for the average recent grad totaled $27,000 according to the survey, while credit card debt per student stood at $12,742 at graduation. Paying down the debts isn’t going to be easy: 83% of those surveyed say they won’t be able to afford basic living necessities including a car, groceries, rent, or a cellular phone.

“We’re seeing that a lot of recent grads wish they’d been more proactive about finding other financial aid options before starting college,” says Jodi Chavez, senior vice president at Accounting Principals. According to the survey, 35% of all grads report they should have pursued more scholarships, and 31% say they should have worked a part-time job during college in order to get a head start on a savings account or loan repayments.

“Students just starting college need to see that more proactiveness needs to take place,” says Chavez. “They need to reflect on what their older siblings and their aunts and uncles have been through, and take cues from their financially strapped parents who are tightening their belts and managing everything in more detail.”

Although not all recent grads are saddled with thousands of dollars in debt, the majority are having a difficult time landing a job in this market, says Steven Raz, co-founder and managing partner at Cornerstone Search Group, an executive search firm based in Parsippany, N.J.

“There is no question that the job market for recent grads is the most difficult market anyone of us can remember,” says Raz. “Right now I’d say that only 30% of recent grads are able to find jobs in this economy. If you’re graduating with $200,000 in debt, what are you going to do? Most of them are moving back in with mom and dad and take any job they can find, including service industry jobs and unpaid internships.”

According to Raz, employers are being highly-selective with hiring, and most are looking for very skilled workers; a general degree in business, marketing or management might not be enough.

“There’s a lot of competition, and someone with a degree in business would do very well to land an entry-level position in sales, and even that is going to be incredibly competitive,” he says. “They’re competing against executives with years of experience, and if you’re coming out fresh, it’s very very hard.”

And in a cruel twist of fate, debt can actually work against students on the job hunt. Many employers perform credit checks before making a job offer, and  a candidate with  a low score or a bankruptcy on their record can raise such red flags that a job offer can be rescinded, Raz says.

“I would be proactive before the credit check comes back and be up front with the hiring manager. They would always rather hear it from you first than be surprised. Just say, ‘Look, I racked up some debt in college, but I’m paying it off and I wanted you to know that you might see that when you look at my record.’”

Debt-laden grads also face weak salaries at jobs, says Paul Lupo, president of Connecticut-based accounting firm Lupo and Associates.

“Entry-level jobs are not paying as much as they did a few years back. It’s a big problem. When a kid graduates with a $100,000 student loan, it’s like they already have a mortgage on a house. Unless they get a job that pays a minimum of $50,000 a year, they’re going to be in trouble, and those jobs just aren’t out there.”

Many students today are still getting scholarships, but in many cases, those scholarships may offer $10,000 per year at a school where tuition is $50,000 per year. The end cost to the students and their families is still exorbitant and would be difficult for any recent grad to pay off, even in a booming economy, says Lupo.

“Tuition has been going up and up for years, but there is an end in sight,” he says. “This will be the next housing collapse. This year I noticed that more than 250 colleges in the U.S. had immediate availability for freshmen, including a dorm and scholarship money, and that tells me that this thing is hitting the top.”

Interestingly, parents with girls headed to college can breathe a small sigh of relief: According to the survey, male graduates racked up nearly twice as much credit card debt as their female counterparts. Male grads owed $17,858 to credit card companies while females owed $8,574 at graduation.

“Guys aren’t buying things that are material, but they do end up going out with their friends drinking, spending money on dates, and going to sporting events,” says Lupo. “For those types of purchases, they don’t think twice about using their credit card.”

However, both sexes are at fault for not considering the consequences of so much debt—especially credit card debt, he says.

“They are only thinking about their time in college. What they need to think about is their life after college. At a certain point, you’re going to have to start paying all of this off—at an obscenely high rate.”