When Serena Whitecotton, 22, walked into Bank of America last month, she encountered a high school classmate working as a teller. It was another reminder that she could not find a job.
"I was just embarrassed," Whitecotton said. "The worst thing is having to explain why I'm in Burbank and why I don't have a job and why I'm at the bank at 1 in the afternoon."
Since graduating last May with a grade-point average of 3.5, experience working at her school newspaper and a degree in communications from California State University at Fullerton, Whitecotton said she has applied for more than 400 journalism and public relations jobs. For her efforts, she has been granted 10 interviews that haven't led to a single job offer. She still lives at home and has been unable to find work since her internship ended in November.
She's far from alone. Of all those who have graduated college since 2006, only 51 percent have a full-time job, according to a Rutgers University study released Thursday. Eleven percent are unemployed or not working at all.
The situation is even more dire for those who have graduated since 2009. Fewer than half of college graduates from those years found their first job within 12 months of graduating, much less than the 73 percent of those who graduated from 2006 to 2008. Those who graduated since 2009 are three times more likely to not have found a full-time job than those from the classes of 2006 through 2008.
“The resilience of this year's and recent college graduates are being tested," said Carl Van Horn, a professor who directs Rutgers' Heldrich Center and a co-author of the study with Charley Stone and Cliff Zukin. “Students who graduated during the past several years are facing historic obstacles in achieving the foundations of the American dream."
Whitecotton, for one, has struggled. "I worked really hard in school," she said. "Now I'm doing absolutely nothing."
"It's just hard to share that with people without feeling pathetic," Whitecotton said.
Unemployment, for Whitecotton and many of her peers, comes with other consequences. Graduates since 2009 have earned an average starting salary of $27,000, down from $30,000 for the classes of 2006 and 2007. That's because employers can pay less with a surplus of job-seekers. In addition, many recent graduates take jobs below their skill level. The study found that 43 percent of employed recent graduates said their jobs do not require a college degree.
The wages of these recent college graduates will likely remain depressed for the next 10 to 15 years because they graduated into a weak economy, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Many know it, too. Just half of employed recent graduates said they are satisfied with their income, opportunities for training and advancement, and progress toward career goals, the Rutgers study found.
Adding to that dissatisfaction, 55 percent graduate with student loan debt averaging $20,000, according to the study. One in four recent graduates with student loan debt have made no progress paying it off.
Nowadays, Whitecotton said she sleeps until 9 a.m. "because I have nothing to wake up for." She applies to five to six jobs per day and spends the rest of her time watching TV and reading -- all while wearing makeup, just in case an employer calls for an in-person interview.
"It would be really nice to be rejected at this point," Whitecotton said, "just to know that people are reading my resume and know that I'm looking for a job."