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Still, more than two-thirds think they will eventually achieve the American dream of getting a good job and settling into the middle class.

Like no generation before them, Millennials understand the value of a good education. Labor statistics show that unemployment at any age is highest among people without college degrees, so many have stayed in school or returned to school to complete their educations.

Although the group is among the most educated in U.S. history, getting a college degree is more expensive than ever. State budget cuts drove up the cost of going to public colleges by 5.6 percent a year in the past decade, even as median family incomes shrank by 6 percent.

Student debt soars

The result was an explosion of student-loan debt as families stretched to send their children to school. Today’s college freshmen are taking on twice the load of student debt as freshmen did 10 years ago, according to Standard & Poor’s Corp. It is becoming more common for students to take on as much as $100,000 in debt just to get a bachelor’s degree.

While taking on debt to get the education and training needed to obtain good jobs makes sense, the dearth of entry-level job openings since the Great Recession started in late 2007 has made it impossible for many graduates to pay off their loans, said S&P analyst Robert McNatt. Defaults among young graduates have escalated to levels near 9 percent.

While graduates can postpone payments on their loans until they get jobs, the debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy and “can become a serious burden” for people who have had trouble securing regular work or high-paying jobs, Mr. McNatt said.

The Obama administration has offered several programs to make loans and grants more freely available for schooling, help graduates consolidate their loans at lower interest rates and forgive any remaining loan payments after 20 years rather than 25 years.

Plagued with chronic unemployment and up to their ears in debt, one-third of the young people interviewed in the Demos study ranked simply making ends meet as their most difficult struggle in life.

“It used to be that hard work and education were the pathways to the middle class,” said Demos analyst Tamara Draut. But today’s graduates are confronted with a “debt-for-diploma system” that doesn’t even guarantee them a good job so they can pay off their debts once they get out of school, she said.

Life on a roller coaster

Mr. Rastenis said his parents, who did not attend college, have been shocked that his Ivy League education has not enabled him to get a good job. His first job out of school in 2008 was a good one in the design field earning $20 an hour. But after several months of work, the company found someone who was willing to do the job without pay and let Mr. Rastenis go.

After that, he found a job designing for a Chicago advertising agency and earned $50 an hour. “I loved it,” he said, but that contract job disappeared within months after the agency lost two big advertising accounts.

Things seemed to go downhill from there. Moving for a time to Texas, where jobs were more plentiful, didn’t prove to be a permanent solution.

With no help from his parents, Mr. Rastenis has had to depend on friends and roommates at times to help pay for essentials such as food and rent. Even getting clerking jobs at retail stores has been difficult because he is overqualified. To get his job at a drugstore, he left his Yale credentials off his resume.

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