NACE Journal, February 2022
Is graduating during a recession more detrimental to students graduating from less-selective universities? If so, why? In recent research, I explored these two questions.1
Research has shown that graduating during a recession has both immediate and persistent impacts. However, we still have a very limited understanding of which types of students are most affected. Given that campus recruiting is an important aspect of students’ job search, it is natural to ask whether the effect of a recession differs with university characteristics.
Graduates of Less-Selective Universities Experienced Larger Losses in Income
First, my research shows the Great Recession more adversely affected graduates from less-selective universities based on average incomes in 2014, roughly five years after graduation. This analysis is enabled by using very rich data at the university and birth cohort level from the mobility report cards, which are based on federal tax records.2
I compared income in 2014 for students graduating during the recession, e.g., the 1986 birth cohort, to those graduating just before the recession (the 1984 birth cohort), and then compared this difference across tiers of university selectivity.
My finding: The recession lowered incomes by an additional 5% for the cohort graduating during the recession relative to the cohort graduating just before the recession at Barron's Tier 2 and Barron's Tier 3-5 universities, relative to same-state Barron's Tier 1 universities (excluding the Ivy League and four similarly selective universities, which are referred to as “Ivy Plus” universities).3
Less-Selective Universities Differentially Lost Access to Prestigious Firms
Next, my research focused on one channel that could explain this finding: Prestigious employers were more likely to pause their recruiting activities at less-selective universities during the recession. To investigate this channel, I collected data on target campuses and office locations from 2000 through 2013, for 65 prestigious finance, consulting, and Fortune 250 companies recruiting for business positions.4
My findings: Prestigious firms were less likely to actively recruit on campus during the Great Recession, and this is true across a large range of university selectivity, from Ivy Plus through Barron's Tier 3-5 universities. However, these effects are largest in relative terms for universities outside the Ivy Plus tier.
Among a firm’s target campuses in 2007, at which types of universities did they pause their recruiting activities during the recession? When a firm no longer actively recruits in 2009 at one of its 2007 target campuses, it is more likely to have paused recruiting at its less-selective targets. Relative to their Ivy Plus target campuses, firms are more likely to pause recruiting activities at their target campuses in Barron’s Tier 1. Similarly, relative to their Barron’s Tier 1 target campuses, firms are more likely to pause recruiting activities at their targets in Barron’s Tier 2 or Tiers 3-5. Firms were also more likely to pause recruiting activities at universities further from the firm's office (50 to 200 miles away), smaller universities, and universities where the students have less-affluent parents.
I also studied where firms had resumed recruiting activities by 2011, among the campuses at which they had paused recruiting by 2009. I found that firms were much more likely to have resumed recruiting activities at Ivy Plus universities by 2011, compared to their less-selective target campuses. Firms were less likely to have resumed recruiting at geographically farther universities (more than 200 miles from their office) by 2011, compared with universities within 50 miles of their office. By 2013, firms were still less likely to have resumed recruiting at these distant universities, relative to closer universities.
Losing Access to Prestigious Firms on Campus Affects Graduates’ Income Success
Finally, my research analyzed how losing access to prestigious firms during the recession affected graduates’ likelihood of earning in the top 1% for their birth cohort in 2014. The prestigious firms in my sample were precisely the firms that could enable these very high earnings levels. Unfortunately, my data do not allow me to confirm that changes in income success are due to fewer hires by the firms in my sample, and so this exercise is more suggestive in nature. However, the results are consistent with lost access at labor-market entry affecting longer-run outcomes.
For universities that lost access to at least one prestigious firm, students graduating during the recession were 13% less likely to have income in the top 1% for their birth cohort, relative to those who graduated just before the recession, and relative to graduates from universities in the same selectivity tier and in the same commuting zone.5 This implies roughly 13 fewer students reached the top 1% from universities losing access to, on average, two of these prestigious firms.
Takeaways for Career Services Professionals: Helping Unlucky Cohorts
Prior research has shown that students who were unlucky enough to graduate college during a recession experience immediate negative labor market effects, which continue to persist during an individual’s career. My new research shows these effects are strongest for graduates of less-selective universities.
These results highlight the potential benefits of programs to help these students, especially at less-selective universities. For example:
Less-selective universities might provide additional services for students while they are enrolled during a recession.
They may provide services after these students graduate and the economy has started to improve. There may be value in allowing unlucky recent alumni to actively participate in campus recruiting, when it has returned to more robust levels. Given the recent pandemic-related recession, this may be important for spring 2020 graduates. (Editor’s note: NACE’s First-Destination Survey for the Class of 2020 found that only about 50% of the class had secured full-time employment with a traditional employer within six months of graduation.6)
In addition to university selectivity, I found that there are other university characteristics that are associated with greater risk of losing access to firms during the recession, including size and proximity to the firm’s office. Smaller universities and those further from the firm’s office were at greater risk. This may help universities to better anticipate and mitigate the negative effect of recessions on their graduates. When a campus knows it is at greater risk of losing recruiting firms, there may be value in finding creative ways to keep firms from pausing their recruiting, or to encourage them to resume more quickly after the recession.
1 The paper, “Graduating From a Less-selective University During a Recession: Evidence From Mobility Report Cards and Employer Recruiting,” IZA Discussion Paper 14462, not yet published, can be accessed at publish.illinois.edu/russellweinstein/.
2 Chetty, R.; Friedman, J.; Saez, E.; Turner, N.; & Yagan, D. (2020). “Income Segregation and Intergenerational Income Mobility Across Colleges in the United States,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 135(3).
3 Ibid. The four similarly selective universities included in the Ivy Plus group are Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and Stanford University.
4 Data on locations and recruiting were collected using The Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, an archive of the internet started in 1996 with 279 billion web pages. Retrieved from https://archive.org/.
5 Commuting zones are a unit of geographic analysis, often comprised of multiple counties, designed to more accurately capture the local labor market. In 1990, there were 741 commuting zones in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, “Commuting Zones and Labor Market Areas: Documentation.” Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commuting-zones-and-labor-market-areas/documentation/.
6 Koc, E. (November 11, 2021). 2020 Grads Get Fewer Jobs Than Any Class Since 2014. National Association of Colleges and Employers. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/job-market/graduate-outcomes/2020-grads-get-fewer-jobs-than-any-class-since-2014/.