As students keep struggling to find good jobs (or any jobs at all) in the post-recession environment, many colleges have developed new or revamped career services in an attempt to reach more students and show they are doing more to ensure gainful employment.
Now, initiatives at two small liberal arts colleges are bringing students to campus for career development programs when school is out of session -- and the institutions are footing the bills.
Actually, at Northland College, the participants aren't technically students. They're recent graduates who just finished their senior year and find themselves lacking a paid job or career skills. Through Northland's "career bridge semester," they get both. Free.
"We were seeing a need and we thought we could help fill it," said Michele Meyer, Northland's vice president for student affairs and institutional sustainability. "Colleges and universities, as they bring their new students into the college, they really do a lot to transition.... There hasn't been as much help, I think, for students as they transition out."
The program connects graduates with local employers for three-month jobs, with stipends and a "small monthly living expense." (Northland is still considering funding options, either through the college, the employers or grants, or some combination of those.) About 60 percent of the jobs will be at the college -- for example, doing environmental research or working for the outdoor recreation program. The rest will be off campus at nonprofit organizations and different agencies. The graduates, who will work on teams of four or five, will also get simultaneous career education on things such as work place behavior and email interaction.
Experts say the programs at Northland and at St. Lawrence University, where sophomores attend a two-day Career Connections "boot camp" between semesters, are further evidence of the pressure liberal arts institutions are facing to demonstrate their post-graduation value.
"Particularly in the liberal arts sector, lots of colleges are looking into being more explicit about the college-to-career pathway and how they can help," said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. AAC&U last year launched an employer-educator initiative devoted to the topic. "You're seeing a lot more focus on that -- not surprisingly, given the increased concern with the recession and evidence about job prospects."
However, many career service professionals are pushing for a more academically integrated, long-term and comprehensive approach than what these two programs alone provide. They are good ideas, experts say, but should be part of a broader initiative.
"Colleges and universities have been providing these services for a long time in a variety of different ways," said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "The basic problem with students is that the whole professional career development piece is so disconnected from academics that there's no conscious thought about engaging in those activities, even if they're presented to them."
Both Northland's and St. Lawrence's programs, which are piloting this year, are optional. The latter cost academic affairs $20,000 and brought about 110 sophomores to campus last week to interact with employers and alumni and work on things like résumé and cover letter-writing, interviewing and internship hunting. The students stayed the night in the dorms and ate university-provided meals.
While the idea is to get students thinking about careers and internships earlier, in theory that preparation and demonstrated motivation will pay dividends when it's time for students to enter the job market.
"If you're charging north of $50,000 a year," Career Connections Director Geoffrey Falen said, you want to be able to point to the specific career opportunities that students have and show that they're encouraged to engage with those opportunities. "I've certainly seen the conversation shift over the last few years to, 'What is my kid going to do.... Where is the return on educational investment?' "
According to a survey of graduates, 94 percent of St. Lawrence's 2012 graduates were working in a job or internship or attending graduate school 7 to 10 months after graduation. Interest in the new program is high, Falen said, especially since he contacted parents about it.
Meyer said she didn't know Northland's job placement rates offhand but that they've been fairly consistent over the years. She said the college might start charging for the program if it's successful and popular enough, but ideally it would remain as a free service, similar to first-year orientation.
Falen, similarly, said charging in the future is a possibility, but it would probably take the form of a universal student fee.
Paying for everything is "a move of necessity," said Kelley Bishop, director of the University of Maryland career center, if colleges want to make a case that they're really trying. Even if such programs are created in response to scrutiny and are not part of a structured four-year effort to guide students into careers, an easily accessible opportunity (or even better, a required one) is a step in the right direction, he said.
"I think anybody would see that and say, you're progressing, that's good, you're evolving," Bishop said. "But it would be very simple if colleges and universities upfront just said... 'It's part of the deal.' That would be moving us squarely away from the current model that says, 'Come get this if you want it, come get this if you need it, come get this if you can squeeze it in.' "
Northland does have additional structures in place "to ensure early and appropriate career development steps," Meyer said, including required first-year career education as well as vocational workshops. And applicants have to meet a number of benchmarks to be admitted to the career bridge semester, so Meyer's not worried about students putting everything off until graduation.
Humphreys said that over all, students are witnessing a "pretty big cultural shift" in how colleges help them.
"I think you're going to see lots more of this," she said, "I mean, lots more, in the next few years."