Image: Fast food worker (© Creatas-PictureQuest)
Watch that minimum wagedebate carefully, college students: It's your first job people are fighting over.

While Congress and the president squabble over giving workers an extra 2 bucks an hour, The Wall Street Journal reports that 284,000 Americans with college degrees worked minimum wage jobs last year. That's down from a 2010 high of 327,000, but it does mean that 70% more college grads are earning minimum wage than a decade ago.

With art-school students and MBAs alike crushed by debt and even Ph.D. students seeking food stamps in increasing numbers, it's understandable that folks would write off college education as an expensive waste in the current economy. Yet a college degree is just about the only way young Americans benefit from the sluggish economic recovery.

From 2010, when the job market bottomed out, to 2012, workers with bachelor's degrees saw their employment rate increase by 5%. Those with advanced degrees fared even better: Among workers with master's, doctoral or professional degrees, about 1.1 million more reported having a job in 2012 than in 2010. According to the Labor Department, that 6.7% increase represents the fastest employment gain of any education level during that span.

Unfortunately, people without an advanced education are getting pushed out of the labor market altogether. The 36% of American workers older than 25 with a high school education or less started losing jobs in 2007 and haven't stopped. About 767,000 fewer of them reported having a job in 2012 than in 2010, and 2 million workers in that demographic left the job market altogether during that span.


It doesn't help that the college kids are sucking up just about every job imaginable. The U.S. economy has recovered 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed during the recession. Roughly 65% of those regained jobs have been of the low-wage variety, though the National Employment Law Project says nearly 60% of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages or better.

As a result, The Center For College Affordability and Productivity reported that nearly half of the college graduates from the class of 2010 are working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. A full 38% have taken gigs that don't even require a high school education. According to The Associated Press, that has dropped the median wage for college graduates significantly since 2000.

That's a lot of parchment behind the counters at Starbucks (SBUX), Panera Bread (PNRA) and Wal-Mart (WMT), but it's not going to stop a flood of overqualified applicants from stuffing Costco's (COST) inbox when the company says it supports boosting the minimum wage. To student loan providers, cash from big-box store paychecks looks just the same as that doled out by the payroll departments at Goldman Sachs (GS) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

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