college gradThey studied for years. They met the requirements. Proudly, they walked across the stage to receive their coveted degrees. Yet, millions of recent college graduates are receiving a not so pleasant return on their educational investments: unemployment.

According to a study by the Associated Press, more than half, or 53 percent, of the nation’s recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, the highest share in 11 years. Graduates are trading their dream positions of engineers, doctors and one-day CEOs for retail, food-service and warehouse jobs.

The AP reports:

About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.

Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.

While science, education and health-related degrees are faring well, those former students holding degrees in the humanities and arts cannot say the same. Graduates are working jobs that either do not require a bachelor’s degree or do not utilize their skills or knowledge. To add insult to injury, the AP reported that the median wages for those possessing bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000.

With the continuous increase in college tuition, massive amounts of debt and a seemingly bleak job outlook, many pre-and-post graduates are questioning whether or not a college degree is actually worth the financial investment. So, is it?

As a recent graduate of the 2012 class –three months to be exact –I can honestly say that this question has become more and more complicated to answer. I know many people who have graduated from college in the past two years who fall into the “un” or “under” categories when it comes to employment. One person I know did an accelerated, but rigorous and expensive degree-program. He received a bachelor’s degree in just two years, racked up more than $40,000 in student loans and has been working in retail since he graduated.

Another graduate I know couldn’t find a job with her public relations degree and ended up moving back home and working as a cashier at a local grocery store. There are numerous similar stories.

Yet, I know some tales with a different ending. My fellow 2012 graduates have landed jobs at companies such as Bloomberg, CNN and Teach for America. Some got accepted into law and medical schools, others are working to start their own companies.

What’s the difference?

Jordan Weissmann, associate editor at The Atlantic, sums it up in his article on the unemployment crisis: It’s about the skill set.

Now more than ever, degrees cannot stand on their own. They must be supported by experience. Internships, fellowships, research and volunteer work: These are the things recruiters and employers look for beyond the B.A.’s and B.S.’s.  A college degree shows a student was capable of completing demanding requirements and gained knowledge in a particular area over time. The extracurricular activities, such as internships, show how he or she demonstrated his or her understanding by practicing and perfecting the skills the individual learned while in pursuit of the degree.

Degrees do still matter; they are still required for most current positions. Yet, just as importantly, college students need to focus on building the necessary skills for future job success through hands-on, practical experience.

in Starting a Career]