For most of the last three years, one group has survived the economic downturn with minimal damage: college graduates.

Workers with an undergraduate degree saw unemployment rising only slowly, even as the rest of the economy tanked, with millions of jobs lost in industries like construction and manufacturing. College grads were as close as you could get to recession-proof.

Not anymore.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that unemployment among people under 25 with bachelor's degrees vaulted to 9.6% in December. That's up from 8.6% in November and 5.9% just two years earlier. A stagnant labor market means the country can't create enough jobs for the thousands of young people set to graduate this academic year.

A Degree Alone "Doesn't Cut It"

For the classes of 2010 and 2011, this means taking a practical approach to the job market. Instead of focusing on their grade-point average and waiting for offers to roll in, they have treat the job hunt as a major component of their education.

"The degree alone doesn't cut it," says Matthew Berndt, director of communications career services at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's a message that's coming home to students much more clearly now." Many of these students were freshmen at the height of the economic boom in 2006, and never thought they'd have to fight for jobs.

"I felt like I was a good student at school with an in-demand skill set," says Laura Kaufman, 22, an international relations major who has been unemployed since graduating from Michigan State University in spring 2010. "When you go into the actual job market, you're really thrown to the ground."

Employers Have Their Pick

Of course, The Great Recession has hit the prospects of most groups in the U.S., from immigrant construction workers to hedge fund managers. Still, young grads face a potent mix of economic problems, many of which were barely imaginable a few years ago.

Besides high unemployment, the slump in house prices and tumbling 401(k) plans have kept many older workers in their jobs after the time they planned to retire. That means fewer opportunities for younger workers. And with consumers still paying down debt more than 18 months after the recession officially ended, employers aren't always keen to take on new staff.

When jobs do open up, a glut of qualified workers sends in resumes. "It has gotten tougher," for young grads, says Harry Griendling, CEO of recruiting company DoubleStar. "Employers feel they can have the pick of the litter."

Smart Job-Hunting Pays Off

In this new environment, students have to fight for the job they want. Courtney Heim, 21, graduated from Bradley University in December. She had four different job offers in sales and marketing waiting for her -- she just had to pick which she wanted.

But it wasn't easy to get those offers. She spoke to every company that was hiring for sales/marketing positions at the Bradley career fair. She presented each recruiter with an industry-specific resume and a business card that showed her picture, GPA and a mini-resume on the back.

"I would go up, talk to them, give them my resume and right off the bat try to get an interview," Heim says. After speaking with a potential employer, she sent a thank-you letter. "I never sent an email, I always did a typed letter," Heim says. "It makes you stand out 10 times from everyone else, and it's a little piece of paper and 45 cents or whatever for a stamp."

For those less fortunate or less aggressive, the job market can be a cruel place. More than one-third of college graduates are currently working at jobs that don't require a degree, according to Neeta Fogg of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

As a result, many have spent tens of thousands of dollars on a degree to earn only slightly more than an 18-year old high-school graduate with no college experience. "The negative effect is not only earnings today, it's in the future," Fogg says. "You start at a lower level, and that gap is going to stay with you for a long, long time."

Michigan State grad Kaufman is currently searching for work in Philadelphia, living with her boyfriend and spending money she saved working part-time at college. As the cash runs low, she has cut out meals at restaurants and colors her hair at home, rather than paying for a salon. "I'm living extremely simply these days, that's for sure," Kaufman says.

Tough Time for All

Still, college grads have some positives. Large companies in industries such as banking and manufacturing are returning to campus-recruiting events after earning record profits in 2010. And young grads are much more able to relocate and accept lower wages than their older counterparts who have debt and families to maintain.

"I wouldn't say a college degree isn't worth it," Fogg says. "I'd just say this recession had decimated job opportunities for everyone."

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The experts tell us we can continue to consume are way out of this mess. Go to any Walmart and you can see why they say this. No one cares who makes what any more as long as its cheap and bought on credit. May be its time to pay the piper. We have kicked the can down the road as far as we can. No one is going to like the cure but everyone will bite this **** sandwich.The real morons are the ones waiting for manufacturing jobs as they shop imported merchandise. The new degree earned crowd will quickly learn colleges exist to make a profit not to cure society mistakes. A fool and his debit card will soon part

January 11 2011 at 9:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

THIS is what outsourcing gets you. American business has spent the last decade gutting the work force to try and degrade the standard of living in the US so that we become just another third world labor pool. The social contract has been destroyed and replaced by EXACT FIT. It is time that we started holding our elected officials accountable for the mess they allowed to happen because they have been purchased by American (and I say that with great reservation) business for pennies on the dollar. Either our elected officials treat business like the Chinese do, or we unelect all of them. There is a reckoning coming for the multinationals that are looking to destroy this country.

January 11 2011 at 6:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The problem began when we started glorifying salesboyship and marketeering over real productive work whether in trades or degreed. When image became more important than achievement then our country started downhill. Commenters slam college educations out of jealousy because they were unwilling to work that hard to get one. I am surprised some of the same old loudmouths are not slamming unions as well. These wrong wingers are mostly salesboys, guys who get drunk on the golf course, tell lies and inflate the cost of everything. They spent ten years inflating the price of houses, stock market and playing finance games trying to get something for nothing. Now those of us like myself, who learned a trade then worked hard to get an education are paying the price for these finance and stock market scammers and real estate salesboys who scammed everybody to get their commissions then walked away when everything fell apart. It all started with that worthless reagan, the first movie star image president. He hated working people and anyone who did anything productive because of how little of real value he did in his life. Like the rest of the salesboy trash and marketeers floating by on image and doing nothing of real value.

January 10 2011 at 11:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Fred is a Tool for Marketing Yourself in Today's Competitive Job Market.

January 10 2011 at 10:23 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

My twin son and daughter are graduating from high school this summer,and are currently in the college application process. I encourage them to maintain good grades and apply to the best schools possible.I tell them that we will hope for as much financial aid as we can qualify for ,and will make up the difference as best we can.Although I hold my breath about what the future holds for them,I will not crush their dreams because of this (hopefully) temporary recession.I left high school for a trade job many years ago,and although we have a nice home and good life,I don't want my kids to have to work like dogs in the rain and ice like I did.We always tell our kids to aim high,because life will beat you into the ground without a good living.Thankfully our kids see the difficulties many college grads have today and are thinking about good educational directions with strong future demands for their skills.Wasting thousands of dollars for a liberal arts education is a recipe for a lifetime of debt and regret.

January 10 2011 at 9:56 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mark's comment
Art Miller

Recession ended 18 months ago, thats news to me its just as bad if not worse here in Illinois. I guess if you tell the lie over and over people will buy it after some time but this guy wont.

January 10 2011 at 9:22 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I hate to say it, but these young folks, whose bills were being paid for them, had the luxury to fall for the Hopey Changey candidate in 2008. They turned out in massive numbers for the very guy who will stifle their career opportunities for years because he doesn't understand business and has made the jobless numbers so much worse with his policies.

January 10 2011 at 9:00 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

They may have to take a job at McDonalds. Which may lead to an asst. mgmt. position or gen. mgr. paying 100k+. Can't start at the top, the important thing is to get into the workforce.

January 10 2011 at 8:44 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

college degrees will go a long way at McDonald's!

January 10 2011 at 8:35 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to CADNR's comment

As long as we have Obama in office it going to be that way. No jobs slow recovery 2 year tax extention is not enough to make plan to grow a company. 5 to 10 year plans is what most company work on.

January 10 2011 at 8:29 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply