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In some cities, a college degree is worth a lot, in others not so much 

Key Points
  • Most cities have more college graduates than they need.
  • As a result, more young people are finding it difficult to land a good job out of school. 
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More American workers are college educated than ever before. Yet the share of recent graduates who are unemployed or working jobs that don't require a degree is on the rise.

To solve that mystery, people often turn to the graduates themselves, said Molly Scott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington. She said they ask questions of the student such as whether she chose the "right" degree or if his credentials are sufficient.

"What's missing in that narrative is understanding the structure of the labor markets people are trying to insert themselves in," Scott said.

Most urban economies simply have more college graduates than they need, according to a new study she co-authored. "In a lot of places, people have skills and education that are not seen as resources," Scott said.

In an analysis of 387 cities, Scott found nearly 90 percent of them hold more people with a bachelor's degree (or more) than jobs requiring that level of education.

The researchers analyzed education levels of residents and available jobs using the 2016 American Community Survey, which measures educational attainment, and Department of Labor statistics on employment in more than 800 occupations.

The strongest job markets for college graduates in midsize cities include California-Lexington Park in Maryland and Hanford-Corcoran, California. In large cities, recent graduates will likely find themselves in demand in Merced and Bakersfield, California.

On the other hand, a college degree is unlikely to get you in the door in midsize cities like Ithaca, New York, or Iowa City, Iowa. Neither will a degree stand out in cities like Fort Collins, Colorado, or Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When most or all of the applicants an employer hears from are college educated, he or she will "inflate" their requirements with additional degrees and experiences, Scott said. As a result, many prospective employees can't keep up with the credentials that are being demanded.

The answer then is not to continue to send more people to traditional colleges, the researchers conclude, but to expand work-based, more affordable education paths.

Employers, for their part, should move toward skill-based hiring and put less weight on the lengthening lines and letters found on resumes, they write.

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