(Jeff Barnard ~ Associated Press)
That's what happened to Josh Donahue, 23, who went on food stamps two weeks after leaving Oregon State University with an economics degree that he hoped to use for a job as a financial analyst. He's living with his aunt and uncle in Grants Pass, Ore., and looking for even a menial job.
"It feels like really, really bad, terrible timing," he said. "A degree in economics doesn't really prepare you to understand the economy very well."
Timing is much on the minds of students as they size up their opportunities in the worst economy their generation has known, an AP-mtvU poll at 40 college campuses finds. Young men and women are anxious not only about their finances and job prospects after graduation, but about the pressures facing parents, normally the rock of their existence.
Nearly one in five polled students reported that at least one parent had lost a job in the past year.
Many young people are taking refuge in graduate school, buying time until the economy improves even as they amass more debt from student loans. But others who hoped to go to grad school have had to defer it because of the expense.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., systems engineering junior Adrian Solomon, 21, of Virginia Beach, Va., said his mother, who is single and raising his 16-year-old sister as well as a foster child, is "trying to support me sometimes, when I need it."
At other times Mom has asked him for money, and "I would do what I can to help her out."
Jake Lear, 21, of Warrenton, Va., a digital arts major at George Mason, worked three jobs at a time through the past semester and is doing one of them full time this summer -- a resident adviser helping to look after freshmen in dorms -- because he gets free housing. His parents work for a federal contractor that shrank its work force and eliminated 401(k) matching contributions. The school is in suburban northern Virginia outside Washington.
"I'm pretty much independent as far as school goes," Lear said. "Where they would normally help me out with cash here and there they don't so much any more, just because money's so tight."
For all the apprehension, there's also a lot of determination and spirit. Students don't expect an easy ride through college and seem to believe their education will pay off -- eventually.
Buchi Akpati is an 18-year-old from Woodbridge, Va., who juggled three jobs at once through the past semester -- one online, another at the gym and a third as a beauty consultant. Her days have been unfolding like this, once she gets out of bed between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.:
"I go to class, study in between class, go to work, study at work, go to my other job, Mary Kay, do some facials, sell some products, study in between, go back to my dorm, study and eat at the same time, work online at the same time, study afterward from like 2 to 6 a.m., then sleep, and then wake up and do the same thing."
She is majoring in "biology, premedicine, with a splash of Spanish" and adding two summer classes to her workload. "I never get any sleep," she said brightly. "That's the thing."
The poll explored matters of money and mind, surveying students on financial pressures, job possibilities, stress and depression. Among the findings on the economy:
--22 percent of students said they worry a lot about having enough cash to get through a typical week at school, and more -- fully one-third -- said they really worry about the finances of their parents.
--Nearly one in five changed plans this year and decided to attend graduate or professional school after college because an undergraduate degree might not be enough to get them a job.
--11 percent of those whose parents lost a job veered away from grad school because they could not afford it. They were twice as likely to avoid grad school as those whose parents did not lose a job. Job loss in the family also made twice as many students consider dropping out -- 27 percent. Overall, nearly one in five considered quitting school.
--32 percent said financial worries have a lot of impact on the stress they're under, up from 27 percent last spring.
Nervousness is apparent on campuses, even in the midst of post-exam relief. So, however, is resilience.
Instead of being discouraged by the 29 applications for summer internships he sent off without response, Larry Robertson is pumped about the one that is landing him an interview.
"I HAVE to get a job," he said. Living at home in Washington, where he devotes Fridays and other times to looking after his grandmother, he's been commuting up to four hours a day to George Mason and scrimping at every turn as he prepares for law school. He'll graduate in December with a major in sociology and a minor in anthropology.
"I don't buy clothes," Robertson said. "I don't shop. I stay at home, I don't go out. I have a very strict academic life.
"I really try to prepare enough so that I'm not stressed out with money. That's the last thing you need to be stressed out by when you're in school."
Corwin Burton, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, also on the Washington outskirts, gave up his apartment and moved back home when the tips dropped off at the bar he tends. Studying nano-engineering, he's confident the economy will rebound by the time he gets out of grad school.
"It always does," he said. "It's nowhere near bad enough to think that the country's going to explode and fail. The economy naturally cycles. I've studied enough economics to know that. It goes up, it goes back down."
In Grants Pass, Donahue wonders when it's going to go up.
He regrets stretching his bachelor of science in economics over five years, thinking he'd be in the financial sector by now if he'd finished school in four. Given the turmoil in that sector, however, it's questionable whether an entry job would still be there.
Sharing his $200 a month in food stamps with his aunt and uncle in lieu of rent, he's applying for work as a delivery man, a hotel clerk, a bank teller and a white-collar job in the insurance industry. He's planning on going to law school.
"Having a college degree and having to ask other people for help is not a funny thing," he said. "It's a little demoralizing."
Still, faith persists in the value of an education as a career builder, and a temporary shelter from the outside world.
Lear gets the occasional "panic-inducing thought" that capitalism itself is unraveling, a scary prospect with graduation ahead of him in December. "Right now, it's the only thing to do," he said of schooling. "There's always grad school and I'm not afraid of more education."
Then there's the laser focus of Robertson, on track to become a public advocacy lawyer.
"I've made up my mind about what I'm going to do and so I'm going to do it," he states. "If I have to endure some challenges and struggle a little bit, that's fine. If it's going to take me some extra time, I want those credentials, it's really important, so I'm going to do it."
The poll was conducted April 22 to May 4 by Edison Media Research and involved interviews with 2,240 undergraduate students aged 18-24 at four-year colleges. To protect privacy, the schools where the poll was conducted are not being identified, the students who responded were not asked for their names, and people interviewed for this story were not part of the survey. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The TV network mtvU is operated by the MTV Networks division of Viacom and available at many colleges. MtvU's sponsorship of the poll is related to its mental-health campaign "Half of Us," which it runs with the Jed Foundation, a not-for-profit group that works to reduce suicide among young people.
AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, AP Television Producer Faryl Ury and Multimedia Editor Kevin Vineys contributed to this report.