No Guarantees: Even College-Educated Young Adults May Be Disconnected from Work and Education

Marisol Kevelson

Catherine M. Millett

It’s hard to imagine that a young person enters college envisioning that only a few years later they will have earned their degree and yet not be in education, employment, or training, commonly referred to as “NEET.” In essence they are “disconnected.” This is not an outcome that is typically associated with college graduates as we often thought that education served as a sort of inoculation against NEET status.

The possibility of becoming a college-educated NEET is a situation confronting many young people today as they launch their careers in the midst of a global pandemic. This unexpected turn of events has led to soaring unemployment rates among workers of all ages, and particularly among Millennials and Generation Z.

Given the global resonance of this issue and the haunting reminders of the NEET experiences of the Millennial generation after the 2008 recession, ETS and European researchers collaborated to shine a spotlight on the issue of disconnection among recent college graduates in the U.S. and 29-countries in the OECD. The new study, College-Educated Yet Disconnected: Exploring Disconnection from Education and Employment in OECD Countries, With a Comparative Focus on the U.S., explores factors that influence the odds that young adults (ranging in age from 20-29) with at least a two-year college degree will end up “NEET” or “disconnected.”

Results of the study highlighted the persistent negative influence of coming from a family with low education levels. Even after accounting for national and local economic factors, academic ability, college major, and degree completion, we see that college graduates with less-educated parents are more likely to end up NEET during some of their prime working years.

Three specific findings of the study may resonate with readers in all corners of the world:

  1. Students who come from families in which no parents have completed high school have a higher probability of being a college-Educated NEET. What this finding indicates is that the supports colleges and universities put in place during the school years may need to extend to help with the transition from college to career. For example, supports may be needed for career planning and job applications and interviews both during college and beyond. Given the value of social networks for the career opportunities of more affluent students, mentoring and networking opportunities may be critical in order for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to have a chance at moving from a low-income to a middle- or high-income career and life trajectory. This may be even more important in the context of the post-pandemic economy, when vulnerable populations may be at an even greater risk of disconnection.
  2. Young women, in particular young mothers, are more often disconnected. What is interesting is that we found opposite results for the U.S. and OECD countries. In the U.S. college-educated mothers are more likely to be NEET but in the 29 OECD countries non-college-educated mothers are more likely to be NEET. One plausible explanation is differences in family policies between many OECD nations and the U.S. Whereas many OECD countries provide government-sponsored, high-quality childcare for all families, in the U.S. the high cost of quality childcare is only subsidized by the government for families living in poverty.
  3. College major may also be an indicator of a need for support, since young adults that studied the arts, humanities, languages, and agriculture may have higher odds of being NEET, relative to graduates in the social sciences, business and law. Thus, college administrators and other student supporters may need to be especially cognizant of the needs of specific students in this unique and challenging time.

While all young adults may be especially in need of support in the early stages of a career during a global depression, the results of this timely study highlight the critical importance of supports for certain populations of college-educated individuals.

The silver lining for college graduates who may be struggling to build their lives at such a unique and challenging time is that they have already completed their degrees. Perhaps an increase in remote work opportunities will also bode well for the work-life balance of new graduates and free them from the geographic ties encountered by prior generations. We are entering an interesting new period of history, one in which the traditional structures and practices of organizations may shift drastically; we have yet to see how work and the economy will evolve and respond.