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Degrees Protected New Grads From Recession's Worst

But those figures cover adults of all ages, and there's been less study of whether the cost-benefit analysis might look different for recent graduates. Pew said it wanted to focus on 21-to-24 year olds, asking whether the recent downturn was so severe that it fundamentally changed the equation for those who entered the labor market at its worst.

The report finds the employment rate for people in that age group with a bachelor's degree fell from 69 percent before the recession to 67 percent during, and was still down at 65 percent as of December, 2011. But the drops were sharper for those with lower credentials â¿¿ from 64 percent to 57 percent for those with associate's degrees, and 55 percent to 47 percent for those with just high school.

One hypothesis is that college graduates maintained their employment numbers only by settling for jobs that don't require a degree â¿¿ an issue that Republican nominee Mitt Romney raised repeatedly during last year's presidential campaign, arguing up to half of recent college graduates couldn't find work befitting their degree.

Indeed, the report finds just 42 percent of all new college graduates were in jobs defined as requiring a college degree. Looking only at those working (not those back in school, for instance) just 60 percent held jobs requiring a bachelor's. But while those percentages did decline slightly during the recession, they were fairly comparable to long-term trends. Since 2003, the average has been about 62 percent. It's nothing new that college graduates often take first jobs that don't make full use of their education, and the earnings benefits come only longer-term.

"It takes some experience to move up the ranks in the labor market," Elliott said.

The worst news in the report is that wages appear to have continued to decline at all education levels, even since the recession officially ended. Still, the declines have been less severe for those with a four-year degree and they appear to have stabilized, which is not the case for those with lower credentials.

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