starting pay

Recent college grads: High marks for realistic job expectations

August 2, 2011: 1:56 PM ET

Unlike their counterparts in past years, the class of 2011 cares more about learning than earning, says a new poll.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- This year's college grads are finding jobs at a rate that's 20% higher than last year, and they're making more money, too. Average starting pay, at $51,018, is up by just under 5% over 2010. (The best-paid group -- newly minted petroleum engineers -- commands $80,849.)

Even so, when the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed 20,000 graduating seniors to find out what they hoped to get out of their first jobs, the researchers noticed an interesting trend: "Opportunity for advancement," a high priority for those who earned their sheepskins between 2008 and 2010, didn't even make the top five this year.

So, what did? "Opportunity for personal development" took the top spot, followed by job security, good insurance benefits, and friendly coworkers. The grads in the study ranked starting salary as no. 5.

Aspirations of taking on the world and charging up the corporate ladder have been dampened by the sluggish economy. With many Baby Boomers unable or unwilling to retire and stubbornly high unemployment rates even among workers with far more experience than new grads, entry-level hires in many companies these days see what human resources experts call a "gray ceiling" lingering above them, threatening to block promotions for a while.

So it makes sense for new grads to concentrate on building their skills so they are ready when opportunities finally come along.

"We've seen 'personal development' moving up the list since the recession started, suggesting that students recognize they may need to look for job satisfaction in other ways" than bigger titles and fatter paychecks, says NACE executive director Marilyn Mackes.

The ongoing national debate over access to affordable health care evidently hasn't been lost on new grads, either. It's no coincidence that insurance benefits ranked third on the recent graduates' wish list. According to another survey, by online insurer eHealthInsurance and Kelton Research, about half (49%) think it would be worth taking a job they dislike in order to get employer-sponsored health insurance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the same poll found that almost half (46%) of their parents agree.

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