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In less than a month, a new crop of college freshmen will be heading off to school, looking to master skills that will help them land good-paying jobs once they graduate and have to start paying off the mound of student loans they took on to pay for their schooling.

But in this tough economy, with roughly one of every 13 workers who wants a job is unable to find one, is a college degree worth the cost, which easily can top $80,000 over four years at a state university and double that at a pricier private school?

The answer is yes, according to a pair of Federal Reserve Bank of New York economists in Buffalo, who took a close look at how quickly recent graduates have been finding jobs that are in line with their skills and whether those jobs pay enough to make the cost of a college degree worthwhile.

“You hear a lot of stories about people getting their degree and working as a barista or a bartender or a retail clerk. We wanted to see how much of this is really going on and put it into context,” said Richard Deitz, a Fed economist in Buffalo who studied the question with fellow Fed economist Jaison Abel. (See interview below for more from Deitz.)

What the economists found was that the soft economy is making it harder for recent graduates to find a job that requires a college degree, forcing many to settle for less-skilled positions to help pay the bills while they keep searching for college-level work.

But while the search is taking longer now than it did during the heady days before the Great Recession, recent graduates usually have pretty good luck finding a job that demands a college degree by the time they turn 27, and those jobs tend to pay much more than the positions typically filled by workers with degrees from two-year colleges or a high school diploma.

“What we found was that the normal pattern when people get their degree and they start looking for their first job is that there is a lot of underemployment. People take jobs below what their college degree has prepared them for. People are often unemployed for a period of time just after they get their degree,” Deitz said.

“But as people get older, they settle into the labor market a little bit more and they have better luck finding jobs and finding good jobs,” he said. “That’s happened in the past. It’s happening now. It’s kind of normal for this kind of thing to occur for recent college graduates.”

It’s just that the transition is more challenging these days.

Across the country, about 45 percent of all recent college graduates currently are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. That’s up from about 38 percent just before the Great Recession hit, but about on par with the underemployment rate during the 1990-91 downturn.

Yet there’s no question that having a college degree helps workers find jobs, the economists said. The jobless rate among recent college graduates is a little less than 6 percent – almost two percentage points below the nationwide unemployment rate. Among all college graduates, regardless of age, unemployment is about half the national average.

Across upstate New York, more than one of every two college graduates under the age of 28 are either unemployed or working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree – a trend that is slightly worse than the national average, according to the study, which was based on job data from 2009 to 2011.

While unemployment is lower among workers age 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree or higher – 5 percent upstate versus 6 percent nationwide – underemployment is more of a problem here, with 49 percent of recent graduates working in jobs that don’t require a degree, compared with 46 percent nationally.

The job hunt is especially hard right after college, with unemployment running around 10 percent for graduates who are age 22. Jobless levels dip to around 7.8 percent for grads by the time they turn 23, and once they’ve hit 27, unemployment is only around 4 percent, the Fed researchers found.

“It takes some time to find a job. That’s not unusual,” Deitz said. “But this time around, it seems tougher.”

It’s a similar challenge for recent grads to find a job that demands skills commensurate with their degree. Underemployment peaks at 56 percent for grads fresh out of college, but drops to 50 percent for 24-year-olds and slides all the way to 40 percent for graduates who have turned 27.

“It takes time for people to settle in and find jobs that meet their educational attainment,” Deitz said.

Engineering graduates have the best luck finding jobs that require college degrees, with just one of every four recent graduates classified as either unemployed or underemployed.

“They weren’t necessarily engineering jobs,” Deitz said. “They could be any job that requires a degree.”

It’s a similar story for recent grads in the education and health fields. Math and computer graduates also do well, with two-thirds classified as being fully employed.

It’s a very different story, however, for leisure and hospitality graduates. Just a third of them were working in a job that required a college degree. And it wasn’t much better for recent grads with degrees in liberal arts, communications, technologies and agriculture and natural resources fields. Only about two of every five graduates with degrees in those fields were working in jobs that demanded a college degree.

“The people with more technical skills, like engineering and math and science, tended to do better – and these were significant differences,” Deitz said.

“It’s important to think carefully about what your major is,” Deitz said. “We’re not saying that, if you look at these trends, this tells you what major you should be in because, obviously other things determine that. But there are some majors that do better in the labor market than others, and they tend to be ones that require more technical skills.”

But even if recent college graduates are finding it harder to find a job that demands a degree, a college diploma still pays dividends on payday.

Recent engineering graduates earn an average of $55,000 when they find a job that requires a college degree, but only around $40,000 in jobs that don’t. At the bottom of the scale, education majors make an average of $35,000 fresh out of college when they find a job that requires a degree, which still is better than the $30,000 earned by those who have a job that doesn’t require one.

Either way, though, they still make more than workers with just a high school diploma, who make around $22,000 a year on average, or even graduates with an associate’s degree, who make an average of around $30,000 a year, the study found.

“Even if you get a degree in a major that didn’t have very good luck, let’s say liberal arts, and you work in a job that didn’t require a degree, those people still earn higher wages that people who just had a high school diploma, by far,” Deitz said.

“Because you are getting skills by getting your degree, no matter what your major is, those skills are going to help you no matter what your job is and those skills are going to help you continue to move up the ladder,” he said. “So there are significant differences in terms of what wages you can expect to earn with a degree, even if you don’t find your dream job right out of college.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com