A four-year college degree, seen for generations as a ticket to a better life, is no longer enough to guarantee a steadily rising paycheck.
Just ask Bea Dewing. After she earned a bachelor's degree -- her second -- in computer science from Maryland's Frostburg State University in 1986, she enjoyed almost unbroken advances in wages, eventually earning $89,000 a year as a data modeler for Sprint Corp. in Lawrence, Kan. Then, in 2002, Sprint laid her off.
"I thought I might be looking a few weeks or months at the most," says Ms. Dewing, now 56 years old. Instead she spent the next six years in a career wilderness, starting an Internet café that didn't succeed, working temporary jobs and low-end positions in data processing, and fruitlessly responding to hundreds of job postings.
The low point came around 2004 when a recruiter for Sprint -- now known as Sprint Nextel Corp. -- called seeking to fill a job similar to the one she lost two years earlier, but paying barely a third of her old salary.
In April, Ms. Dewing finally landed a job similar to her old one in the information technology department of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where she relocated. She earns about 20% less than she did in 2002, adjusted for inflation, but considers herself fortunate, and wiser. A degree, she says, "isn't any big guarantee of employment, it's a basic requirement, a step you have to take to even be considered for many professional jobs."