Millions of Americans are seeing little return from their expensive college degrees -- even in today’s hot jobs market.

For the first time in decades, recent college graduates are more likely to be out of work than the population as a whole, according to the New York Federal Reserve. And for the lower-earning half of college grads, the wage premium is shrinking fast.

Unemployment among Americans aged between 22 and 27 who recently earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher was 3.9% in December -- about 0.3 percentage point above the rate for all workers.

It’s another worrying sign for a generation that borrowed record amounts of money to get through higher education, as the cost of tuition soared. America’s $1.6 trillion in student debt is weighing on the economy and spurring politicians to offer fixes that range from targeted aid to across-the-board forgiveness.

The strong job market should be helping graduates to pay what they owe -- and at the top end of the wage scale, it is. But in recent years, while high-school graduates have seen a sharp pickup in earnings, the lower-earning half of college graduates haven’t -- and the gap between them is now the smallest in 15 years.

More than four in 10 recent graduates are working in jobs that don’t usually require a college degree, the New York Fed says. And roughly one in eight is working in a field where typical pay is around $25,000 a year or less.

The economy is creating a lot of jobs like that -- and it’s expected to create even more. In the occupations that are forecast to grow fastest over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- from home care to restaurant cooks -- typical salaries range from $24,000 to $26,500.

Part of the problem is that the jobs market is saturated with degree-holders, while tight labor conditions have ramped up demand for a different kind of skills -- bringing benefits to electricians and plumbers, for example.

Those workers still have plenty of ground to make up. Pay for Americans who only have high-school qualifications has been in long-term decline -- and even after the gains of recent years, they earn less than they did in 1990.

Meanwhile, better-off college graduates have been the big winners over the past 30 years -- even if their gains have flattened out lately. But the bottom half of college grads have been losers in both the short and the long run.

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