Today's college students will graduate into a labor market reshaped by the recession, in which deferred plans, tight budgets and adjusted expectations are the norm.
Graduates -- some shouldering tens of thousands of dollars of debt -- will compete for jobs for which they feel overqualified and undercompensated, experts say.
"You have to go above and beyond to make it in this economy," said Merideth McGinley, 23, a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey who has yet to secure a job. "Yes, the economy is rising, but you have to kind of rise with it and continue to keep on moving. With the way things are now, you have to be flexible."
Flexibility, experts say, is the key; students will have to consider jobs in fields they might not have imagined and will need graduate degrees to pursue many careers.
Nevertheless, Carl Van Horn, an employment policy expert at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent study on jobs for college graduates, said he sees reason for optimism.
"I believe what 2012 graduates should expect is better than the last couple of years," he said. "Many will find it's a path upward, but not an immediate reward. Eventually, they're going to do fine, but they're going to struggle, some of them."
Employers who responded to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey said they expected to hire 10.2 percent more college graduates this year. Another survey showed a 4.5 percent increase in median salary for the 2012 graduates compared with the class of 2011.
Still, it may be hard to reverse what experts have described as an erosion of confidence among young Americans -- many see a bleaker economic future for themselves and their country.
Daniel Hernandez, 20, a sophomore at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., said that while he remains idealistic, he is not so confident when it comes to getting a job and paying back his student loans.
"I heard somewhere that this is the first generation not progressing, but regressing," he said.
Xiomara Henriquez, 31, a junior at Fairleigh Dickinson University's metropolitan campus in Teaneck, N.J., earned her associate degree from Bergen Community College in 2009, then enrolled in a five-year bachelor's and master's program at Fairleigh Dickinson. She expects to graduate in 2014 and wants to become an elementary school teacher. Once considered a recession-proof career, teaching jobs, like nursing jobs, are now hard to come by.
"I hear the economy is improving, but I don't see it," Henriquez said. "People I know have been looking for jobs for over a year."
College students and experts recited a new educational maxim: An associate degree is often just an extension of high school; a bachelor's degree is the new associate degree, and a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree.
McGinley, a psychology major at Ramapo, said she knows she will have to go back to graduate school to secure a job in her field.
"I should have thought it out better," McGinley said. "I probably shouldn't have been a psychology major. I love it, but when it comes to finding a job, I have to continue my education to find a job that's really in the field I want to do."
A 2011 Rutgers survey of 571 recent college graduates showed that 62 percent felt they would need more education to succeed.
Van Horn said that while he cautions against rushing into graduate school, bachelor's degrees are often only good enough to get a first job.
Career counselors say students should expect to work many jobs throughout their lives, some in unexpected places.
"We are in a new workplace contract," said Debra Stark, assistant director of career development at Ramapo College. "Globalization and technology have just transformed this hierarchical linear ladder."
Some of the growth in job availability is in areas that are not appealing to college students. Sales jobs, in particular, are in abundance.
"A lot of students don't want sales jobs," said Catherine Love, director of career development at Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck. "I guess they don't want to be out there selling; they don't think that's a worthy job to have. Students need to be more flexible than they were in the past and keep an open mind."
Above all, any job is better than no job.
"I think people need to be more aware that having those gaps in a resume will hurt," said Adrian Ailey, 26, a senior at Ramapo. "Don't just sit around. It will really hurt you when you go looking for a job."