Cornell University student Michelle Huang is an undergraduate majoring in international labour relations with a minor in law and society. She plans to go to law school after graduating this spring.
But not right away. She will spend a year travelling in Asia, one of a small but growing number of American students postponing work or further study in a sluggish employment market and instead opting for what has come to be known in the US as “funemployment”.
“You spend so much time in college and then in graduate school focused on the academic side of your field, and I wanted real-world experience,” Ms Huang said. In addition, she said, “the tough economic climate makes people more willing to consider other options, rather than just taking a job they don’t really want”.
Unlike in other countries, such as the UK, the post-graduation gap year is new to US higher education, and still rare; only 5.5 per cent of students surveyed this year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said that they would take the year off after graduation to travel or do work unrelated to their studies. But that is almost double the proportion who did so just four years ago.
Ed Koc, the NACE’s director of research, said that is likely to be a response to the “really abysmal” job market faced by new graduates during that time.
The unemployment rate for university graduates peaked at more than 13 per cent in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and has fallen only gradually since then. A larger number still is the proportion of graduates who are “mal-employed”, meaning that they have taken jobs that do not require a degree: 36 per cent, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.
For many, funemployment beats unemployment or underemployment, said Mr Koc, whose own daughter plans to work part-time in a bed and breakfast in France when she graduates this spring. He said that it may also help graduates to avoid having to explain to parents why they do not have a job yet.
It is not just the economy, however, that is driving funemployment, Ms Huang said.
“That’s one reason,” she said. “But people are seeking out these other options to really get something out of doing things like joining the Peace Corps or teaching English in other countries.”
Going away for a year is not always possible financially: according to the Project on Student Debt, seven in 10 US students incur debt to pay tuition fees and other costs, which averages $29,400 (£17,800) and they must start repaying it within six to nine months of graduating.
“Everyone is thinking about the job market right now,” said Anna Aronowitz, a neuroscience student at Oberlin College, a liberal arts institution in Ohio, who is putting off medical school so she can spend next year teaching English in Indonesia.
In the US, Ms Aronowitz said, “this is an unconventional thing to do”. It is also something that makes some classmates jealous. “More of the jealousy,” she said, “comes from the fact that I am saved from applying for jobs for [another] year.”