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Open Topic: A Matter of Degree

Illustration by Brent Holmes

As students head back to school, a new college graduate ponders the value of her degree

I went to college. I got my degree. Now what? No really, now what? After years of going back and forth between the workforce and college, it finally happened: I graduated from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film. It’s been a long process and, at times, seemed impossible. Graduating with honors takes it to a whole other level of accomplishment. Yet, I find myself wondering what’s next.

From the moment I decided to go back to school for the last time and actually graduate, I did everything right. I worked and went to school for as long as I could juggle the two. Eventually, it became too much, and I focused entirely on my studies for the last two semesters. I got good grades. I networked with students and professors. I took advantage of my internship at a local news station by making business connections and absorbing as much knowledge as possible in that short time.

But what they don’t tell you going into this program is that an internship at a news station in a top 40 market, such as Las Vegas, is not likely to lead to a permanent position there. Instead, you have to get your foot in the door in a small market that offers an equally small pay rate. The reality is that, in many fields, you’ll need a second job or financial support from your family when you’re starting out. It is only after taking several classes toward your track that this truth begins to reveal itself.

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Within a two-day period I applied for at least 50 journalism positions. I received a few responses — and two job offers. This is rare, as many journalism students end up in fields that have little or nothing to do with their degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for journalists will decline nine percent by 2026; Bloomberg reports that some 3,000 journalism jobs were lost in the first five months of this year. So I realize how lucky I am to have not just one but two offers weeks before the end of college. Among my graduating class, I am one of the few who already have something lined up. I should be thrilled, which I am — but I’m also anxious. The reality of moving somewhere I’ve never been and having to work a second job is unsettling. I am faced with going into my field of choice and struggling, or going into a different field altogether to earn a decent living. This seems like the very definition of “torn.”

That also applies to Nicole Bastos, who is pursuing a juris doctor degree at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. On the one hand, she tells me she is more interested in nontraditional practices of law than the usual career path of clerking for a judge or working for a law firm. On the other, she knows this could make things more difficult down the road. “It makes me nervous, you know, because a lot of people get job offers depending on where they are during their second-year summer, which is now. And whatever firm they’re at, the firm will usually extend an offer or not extend an offer, and since I’m not working at a law firm, you know, that’s always something that’s living in the back of my mind.”

At an early age, it is instilled in children to go to college, get a degree, get a good job, and live the American dream. This concept is becoming more difficult to grasp. It is no longer an automatic direct path from college to a good life within your field of study.

“Many college graduates are eager to find work — any work,” says Annie Nova, a reporter for CNBC. “But that first job, however arbitrary, can impact the rest of their career.”

Very much, in fact. In 2017, the New York Fed reported that more than a third of college graduates are underemployed — that is, working in jobs that don’t necessarily require their college-level skills. And it’s not just journalism students. Figures recently published by show that graduates in fields as diverse as psychology, biomedicine, and business have high rates of underemployment. This is true even in a presumably in-demand field like engineering; according to the study cited in Forbes, one in three graduates are doing work that doesn’t require a degree. And approximately two-thirds of the graduates who are underemployed in their first post-college job remain underemployed five years later.

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This 2013 Washington Post headline was even more alarming: “Only 27 percent of college grads have a job related to their major.”

These trends will surely become more complicated in the future as more fields are disrupted by technology (automation, AI), as well as social changes, and shifts in consumer behavior.

All of this begs the question, how important is a college degree in the 21st century?

I don’t have that answer, except in my case. In the end, I declined both job offers. The pay was extremely low in both markets. The thought of uprooting myself to move to an unfamiliar place is one thing, but to move to an unfamiliar place and not be able to afford the necessities is another. Yes, when you want something strongly enough you make sacrifices; but there comes a point when you’re sacrificing too much, and only you can decide when that is.

In the meantime, I do what I love to do: write. That’s where it started for me, at age 13, and that’s what I will lead with. The right job in my field is around the corner, and I’ll be ready when it appears.