When Edy Beteran transferred to UC Berkeley in spring 2011, he hoped a college degree would help him find a stable job and support a middle-class lifestyle.
But since he graduated in December as an English and rhetoric double major, Beteran has been unable to find a job on par with his qualifications. Although attending UC Berkeley gave him a taste of a middle-class lifestyle, he has found it difficult to work his way out of the lower class.
“I come from a lower-class working family of immigrants,” Beteran said. “My parents pushed me towards getting a college degree. But if you’re not able to get that job (after graduation), you feel stuck. It’s like, you’re back at the bottom now.”
Stories like Beteran’s are becoming increasingly common for college-educated Americans. According to the General Social Survey, which monitors social change in the United States, the percentage of college-educated Americans who identify as “lower class” increased to 3 percent in 2012, up from 1.7 percent in 2002 and the highest rate since the survey was first taken in 1972. The percentage of college-educated Americans who say their standard of living has gotten worse over the last few years increased 57 percent between 2006 and 2012.
According to the UC Berkeley Office of Planning and Analysis, 13 percent of admitted freshmen and 18 percent of new transfers admitted for fall 2012 identified as “low income/poor.” Sixty-five percent of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid.
The overall percentage of Americans who identified as “lower class” in 2012 also reached a record high of 8.4 percent, up 0.2 percentage points from 2010.
Jane Mauldon, a UC Berkeley associate professor of public policy, points to an increasingly pessimistic financial outlook rather than raw unemployment numbers as a possible explanation for the shift in class identities.
“You might say we’re worse off than in 2008,” Mauldon said. “Since 2008, people have used up their safety cushions. People’s circumstances are just getting worse and worse.”
A shrinking middle class points to increased polarization of income, according to Sarah Bohn, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Even though education level is still strongly correlated with income, it has become more difficult for college graduates to break into the workforce.
“There’s not the same ample job opportunities that were there (before the recession),” Bohn said. “I could see that it takes longer for students to get jobs when they’re entering the market.”
Still, Bohn said, college graduates have a tremendous advantage when entering the workforce.
“I think the clearest direction is to encourage higher levels of higher education attainment,” she said. “The evidence is generally clear that the more skills you have around the world, the better opportunities there are for skill.”
The percentage of Americans identifying as lower class is still low when taken in context of high poverty levels, which remained stagnant at 15 percent this year, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
Beteran, who is looking for a job in advertising or marketing, says students who enter the job market without experience or connections face a disadvantage.
“In the past, if you had a college degree, (the employer) would hire you and train you,” he said. “Now if you have a college degree, it comes down to what experiences you’ve had. … It comes down to who you know, as opposed to what kind of person you are.”