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Kaitlin Hughes after being inducted into a Jesuit honors society at Georgetown University, with her parents, Kathy and David Hughes. Kaitlin has a job lined up for July. Credit: Photo by Arianna Hughes

NEW YORK — Kaitlin Hughes is a college senior with something many classmates envy: a job offer. As the coronavirus upends the economy, she’s thrilled to have a signed contract for a job starting July 20 in New York City.

“I was getting pretty anxious till I got the offer letter, and then I just said, thank God,’’ said Hughes, 22, who will be doing business development for a law firm after graduating from Georgetown University. “A lot of my friends don’t have jobs yet. Everything is just paused.”

For recent college graduates, the job market in 2020 is shaping up to become one of the worst in recent memory. Last week, joblessness claims climbed by a record 6.65 million, and economists are predicting unemployment could rise as high as 20 percent in the months to come. Some 57 percent of Americans are worried about losing their jobs, 46 percent have seen their hours or income reduced and one-third believe that if they do lose their job, they will need additional education to find a comparable one, according to a survey conducted in late March by Strada Education Network.

College seniors at four-year schools hoped recruiting fairs and on-campus interviews this spring would help them land a job in the strong market they’d expected to graduate into. If not, they counted on having part-time work to fall back on: bartending, waiting tables, serving coffee. One of them is Liz Anderson, 22, who had hoped to move to New York City this summer and look for an entry-level nonprofit position in social work, after majoring in sociology and public health at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York.

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Instead, she’s back home with her family, finishing her classes online and wondering when and if she can afford to move. “Even retail jobs are going to be hard to get, with all those people unemployed,” Anderson said.

For some of the 29 percent of undergraduate students who are 25 or older, half of whom are parents, there are other concerns too. Sakina El Hayouni, a 36-year-old mother of two, is one of them: she’s taking six courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College and hopes to graduate this spring. “I am working really hard and I also have to teach my sons,” said El Hayouni. “It’s a lot, but I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to change my plan.”

Sakina El Hayouni no longer has childcare at Borough of Manhattan Community College as she finishes her final year before transferring to a four-year school. “It’s a lot, but I don’t have a choice,” she said. Credit: Photo by Liz Willen

I met El Hayouni and her sons Imran, 2, and Yahya Saber, 5, a few weeks ago while visiting the early childhood center at BMCC that was a lifeline for working parents. Without it, students are scrambling to finish their classes online while simultaneously managing their children, a situation facing thousands of college parents nationwide.

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Related: How parents of young kids make it through college

“There are students whose lives off campus are not conducive to learning,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the nonprofit group Complete College America. She worries they may not have time or technology for online learning and won’t be able to continue. “Despite all of the best efforts of institutions,” she said, “students who are our most vulnerable may find this situation untenable and may feel that stopping out or dropping out is their only option.”

El Hayouni told me she’s determined to stick with her plan: finish up at BMCC, transfer to four-year Hunter College in the fall and earn a degree in early childhood education so she can find a teaching job. But other students who use the center told me they were stretched too thin and were considering taking the semester off.

“Despite all of the best efforts of institutions, students who are our most vulnerable may find this situation untenable and may feel that stopping out or dropping out is their only option”

Yolanda Watson Spiva, Complete College America

The implications for low-income, working students with children could be dire, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College Columbia University.  (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

“These are students whose lives are already fragile, who are already barely getting by,” said Jenkins, who like Watson Spiva has spent years researching ways to improve U.S. college completion. Both worry that long fought attainment gains could be lost. Jenkins said he is also concerned that college “enrollment will tank, state funding will tank, tuition will go up.”

The terrifying job market turnaround also troubles Maria Flynn, president of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. “Three weeks ago, most places we were dealing with had unprecedented labor shortages,” she said, with discussions centering on a skills gap and how to get ready for the future of work. “This shift is causing everyone to grasp onto their new reality,” she said, with experts predicting new demand for certain kinds of job skills, such as in distance learning, tech-based solutions and health care.

Colleges are going to be under enormous pressure going forward “to facilitate tighter employment opportunities that can get students a predictable outcome (read: jobs),” Adam Wray, CEO and founder of AstrumU, which uses predictive analytics to help graduates find careers, wrote in an email.  

“The answer for what defines success can no longer be you’ve received a diploma,” Wray said. “Like it or not, this wave of acute economic hardship is going to force career readiness and outcomes into the equation even further.”

Related: Tears, confusion and financial woes as colleges abruptly end semesters and send students home

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Katie Gallagher during happier times at St. Lawrence University, before campus closed and her full-time job offer dried up. “To have it all ripped away is just devastating,” she said. Credit: Photo courtesy of Katie Gallagher

That’s small comfort to Katie Gallagher, 22, who had a part-time job at a Boston-based tech start up that she hoped would become permanent when she graduated from St. Lawrence University. Instead, the firm told her that it had to let employees go and would not be hiring.

Gallagher is still partly in shock at the turn of events in her life – moving back home and transitioning to online classes. A few weeks ago, she was enjoying her final semester in her sorority house with more than 30 friends on a leafy campus that finally thaws in spring, excited for graduation.

“To have it all ripped away is just devastating. I don’t know what to do right now,” Gallagher said. “Everyone says the economy is low and will spike up again, but no one knows. Will there be a second wave of coronavirus? Will companies rehire the people they laid off? It’s so confusing and we just have to roll with it.”

“Everyone says the economy is low and will spike up again, but no one knows. Will there be a second wave of coronavirus? Will companies rehire the people they laid off? It’s so confusing and we just have to roll with it.”

Katie Gallagher, St. Lawrence University senior

The upheaval has thrust four-year college students into sudden adulthood, with no transition time.

Rebecca Gertler, 22, is graduating from Tufts University in a ceremony that has  been postponed. She remains in her off-campus house with five of six roommates who are finishing their classes online. Their Massachusetts campus is a ghost town, readying dorms for coronavirus patients if needed. All the fun of senior year – tournaments, parties, concerts – has been canceled.

Gertler had hoped to land a policy analyst job for a nonprofit in the Boston area. She recently had a telephone interview for a position in health care policy, but if that job doesn’t come through, she’s not sure how vigorously to job hunt right now.

“The general feeling is that people are accepting the fact that they are graduating without a job, and they probably won’t find one if they don’t already have one,” said Gertler, who is majoring in quantitative economics and American Studies.

Some 57 percent of Americans are worried about losing their jobs, 46 percent have seen their hours or income reduced and one-third believe that if they lose their job, they will need additional education to find a comparable one, according to a survey by Strada Education Network.

Some classmates who studied computer science or engineering had jobs lined up last fall, but others are watching listings on job sites like Linkedin and Idealist disappear, she said. “I think people, myself included, are mostly very upset,” Gertler said.

Wilson Rogers, 22, a senior marketing major at Stonehill College, had been interviewing for sales positions with sports teams before the coronavirus hit, but realized that with no sports happening, there will be no jobs. He still has a sales internship for NBC in Boston as he finishes classes online.

“At this point, I’m just taking it day by day, and making sure everyone in my family is healthy,” Rogers said. “Everything else is on the back burner.”

This story on the job market was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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