College is often sold to parents and students as the best way to get a great job. But, given the high number of college grads that are unemployed or underemployed upon graduation, many are wondering if college is still worthwhile.

Grads who are carrying significant student loan debt and working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree might not think so – but they aren’t looking at the long term benefits of their degrees.

Is a College Degree a Bad Idea?

Just because students don’t get a job in their field immediately after graduating doesn’t mean that getting a college degree was a bad idea. Getting a degree traditionally has meant a significant increase in earnings over the course of one’s life with some studies pegging the value of these additional earnings as high as $1 million.

In fact, it’s more accurate to say that more recent college grads were part of an unlucky generation who graduated when employers were facing a recession and a tepid recovery. It wasn’t that employers no longer valued applicants with college degrees, but that there weren’t as many jobs for college graduates available. Because of that, the people who did get the few jobs available were often older college grads with more experience under their belt.

It’s important to also understand the context of the underemployment that graduates are facing. While the New York Fed recently found that 45% of those who graduated from 2009 to 2013 were working in a ‘non-college job’ – only 19.3% were working as bartenders, baristas, or cashiers. Most of these millennials were working in office and administration positions or information processing and business support jobs.

While you might think that’s a lot of underemployed college grads –the study also found that these grads were still making more money than other young workers without a degree. That means that even in periods of underemployment a degree has value.

A College Degree Will Be Very Valuable in the Future

Just because underemployment is the current reality for many recent college graduates, that doesn’t mean that it will be similar for these same college grads or others in the future. In fact, the economy is shifting more and more towards a polarization of jobs in high skilled and low skilled sectors. That doesn’t just meant that the income gap between college grads and everyone else is likely to increase, but it also means that those who aren’t qualified for high skilled jobs could end up working in low skilled positions in the future.

Having a degree isn’t just important in the job market today, but it will be critical in the job markets of the future. So, just because millennials are currently serving coffee and grumbling about their ‘useless’ college degrees – they likely won’t spend their careers as baristas.

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A College Degree is No Longer the Only Thing You Need

One problem that some bachelor degree holders have is that they believed that all they needed was a degree to get a job. But college grads who were able to get jobs right after graduation likely had taken majors that were a good fit for the industries that were hiring or they got some experience through internships or co-op placements that made them particularly attractive to employers.

Those who are currently underemployed or unemployed should thus focus on other things involved in getting a job. They should start by getting more experience through internships or volunteer work. They should consider offering freelance services and tailoring their expertise towards the industries that are hiring. For example, if they have an English degree but notice that there are a lot of tech companies in your town, they should consider becoming an expert in social media for tech companies.

Networking is also critical. Going to industry events is a great way to meet people. Grads should also contact decision makers and offer to take them out for coffee and conduct an informational interview with them about the field that they want to go into.

If grads find that their expertise is not a great fit for the job market, they might also consider getting additional education by going back to school to get another certificate or a graduate degree.

College Is Still a Great Investment

It’s important to note that the benefits of a college degree are not just financial. There are a number of benefits such as joining a network of fellow classmates or alumni, learning how to think and reason effectively, and developing as a person.

But college is an expensive way to accomplish those things and many worry that they have made a mistake by going to school. But those who are worried should work hard to get a job that will make use of their degrees and they should hold off on judging whether their degrees were worthwhile or not. It’s too soon to call.

While not all graduates have been lucky enough to get a great job immediately after graduating, if they are persistent and conscientious, they can find a great job and create a career.

©2016