New College Graduates Are Optimistics—Maybe Too Optimistic

Study shows grads’ financial expectations don’t always line up with reality
Graduates holding their caps in the air

As college graduates prepare to embark on the next stage of their lives, most are highly confident about their financial and professional futures, according to a new survey. However, economic data suggests some of their expectations may be unrealistic.

Hope springs eternal for new college grads—those who have either recently finished school or are preparing for their graduation ceremonies. In a survey of 2,500 recent and upcoming graduates conducted by educational content provider Cengage, 82% of respondents said they were optimistic about what comes next.

The survey was part of the Cengage Student Opportunity Index, an effort to gauge the “opportunity environment” new graduates are likely to experience across 17 indicators, including employment, the economy, and well-being. The index found that there is sometimes a disconnect between graduates’ expectations and reality.

One area new graduates are particularly bullish about is their odds of quickly snagging a job in their chosen field. While 93% of those approaching graduation think they’ll receive a job offer within six months of graduation that aligns with their educational background, only 60% of new grads actually do.

Some new graduates are also underestimating the toll student loan debt is likely to take on their overall finances, according to the study.

Approximately 51% of those surveyed reported having student loan debt. While those respondents with student loans said, on average, they thought they would be able to pay their debt off in six years, the research said “other data indicates it will take 20 years” to pay it off. The standard repayment plan which most federal student loan borrowers start with has a term of 10 years.

Respondents with student loan debt were also more likely to feel better about the country’s economic outlook (57%) than those without student loan debt (38%), the survey found.

Other findings showed differences in expectations based on political and socioeconomic factors:

  • 90% of new grads who identified as Republican were optimistic about their future, compared to 79% of those identifying as Democrats.
  • 73% of Republican new grads said the economic outlook was better than when they began college, compared to 39% of Democrats.
  • 44% of new grads from lower income brackets said the economic outlook is worse than when they began college, compared to 21% of those from higher income brackets.
  • While only 36% of new grads believed the country is headed in the right direction, men were more likely to believe this than women by a 49% to 29% margin.

Graduating from college is an exciting milestone, and it’s good to be confident in your future. However, it’s also important to be as informed as possible about economic challenges you may face.

If you have student loans, research and evaluate your options for paying off that debt successfully. And if you’re still in school, survey the job market in your chosen profession so you know what you can expect.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.