(AP)-- It's a time when hope collides with economic reality, when the relief of that last class and the thrill of holding that diploma give way to the next big step -- finding a job.
For the Class of 2012, the optimism of graduation is clouded by the uncertain aftermath of the worst economic slide since the Depression.
Last year, graduates 24 and younger posted a 9.3 percent jobless rate; since then, there have been signs of progress. Unemployment averaged 7.2 percent during the first third of this year, compared with 9.1 percent in the same period in 2011. And one survey estimates that about 7 percent more new college grads will find work this year than a year ago.
But the job market is still tight, millions of people remain unemployed and graduates -- whether they're embarking on a career from high school, college or in mid-life -- are entering a work world where salaries have not rebounded since falling during the recession.
The outlook is especially grim for high school graduates: Unemployment has topped 20 percent in all but four months since the start of 2009.
For thousands of new graduates making the big transition this spring, there are pressures to find jobs quickly, pay off loans and, in some cases, start a second career, all against the backdrop of the slow-healing economy.
The speed and strength of the recovery -- a topic at the heart of the presidential race -- will help shape their future in different ways. For an aspiring teacher, for instance, it may determine how fast he gets out of debt. For a budding entrepreneur, how much money investors pour into his startup. And for an autoworker-turned-cook, how smoothly he reinvents himself.