WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Courtney Flynn spends a lot of her time in a bright, bustling office suite that looks like something out of the Fortune 500, shining with floor-to-ceiling frosted glass, conference rooms and bright contemporary furniture.
She doesn't work here. She's what she calls a "serial visitor," popping in to get advice she hopes will help her land a good job someday, someplace else.
This high-tech place in which Flynn finds herself so often is the Office of Career and Professional Development at Wake Forest University, where she's a junior majoring in classical studies and German. The career center has moved upstairs from the basement of a building in the center of the campus into a new 7,000-square-foot space, and its staff has grown from seven to 30 with the help of $8.5 million raised from parents and alumni.
This rocket-fueled approach to what was previously called career counseling is a response to demands from students and parents that increasingly pricey universities do more to help graduates find jobs than run occasional career fairs and pass out brochures.
What's happening at Wake Forest and a handful of other schools, however, is more of an exception than the rule, in spite of intensifying pressure that universities, in a tough job market, do more for students who go deep into debt to pay for their tuition.
Most universities are spending less, not more, on their career centers. Last year, the budget of the average college career office dropped by nearly 16%, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The average number of job-hunting workshops and internship placements universities provide has also fallen. The average college career counselor today serves 1,645 students, and on campuses with enrollments of more than 20,000, the ratio is one to an unwieldy 5,876, the association reports.
"It's a huge underinvestment," says Beth Throne, associate vice president of student and postgraduate development at Franklin & Marshall College. "If you look at how much colleges spend on admissions and advancement, they usually have deans over both and huge teams of people and resources. This middle part, which is supposed to connect students to opportunities, usually gets very little, and that's ironic" - especially, she says, when, students "are paying the price of a small luxury vehicle to attend this school, and they're expecting, their families are expecting, a return on their investment."
Nationally, only 42% of the Class of 2010, the last for which the figure is available, had jobs on graduation - and barely two thirds were employed six months later.
Franklin & Marshall offers non-credit workshops to provide job-searching tips and drop-in hours for students to meet with career counselors. It has recruited 690 mentors from among parents and alumni, reinforcing the traditional networking process.
Wake Forest's career-development office works with students starting the week that they arrive as freshmen, administering self-assessment tests to help them choose a major and showing them where Wake Forest alumni in that major have gone on to work - and how much they make. It offers for-credit job-hunting classes, and sends out customized e-mails to upperclassmen about job openings in their areas of interest. It even has a photo booth for students to take professional mugshots for the career site LinkedIn.
"If we're going to justify the value of a higher education, we're going have to provide students with the skills they need to compete in the economy," says Andrew Chan, Wake Forest's head of career services, who previously ran the career office of his alma mater, Stanford Business School, and was CEO of an online recruiting company.
The University of Buffalo School of Management arranges Skype interviews for students with employers, who are less likely these days to come to campus. It tracks down students who haven't shown up at career events, requires undergraduates to take a career course and records practice interviews on iPads so students can see how they do.
"The more competitive the student needs to be, the more competitive the career office needs to be," says Gwen Appelbaum, head of the school's Career Resource Center.
The career office at Westminster College is unusually centrally located - not across the street from the campus, as is often the case, but next to the bookstore in the heart of the busy student union. Just outside of it is a flat-screen TV that constantly displays new job postings with quick-response, or QR, codes students can scan with their phones for more information. Westminster makes such listings omnipresent; it also has a print version called Career News in the Loo, which is hung on the walls of restrooms.
"Career centers used to have the jobs-in-the-binder approach," says Mike Caldwell, the office's director. "You would wait for someone to wander in. But now you'll have an employer who gets permission to hire someone this afternoon, and we have to get that information out as quickly as possible. The pressure has increased."
The college is also part of a consortium of public and private universities in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming that share a centralized job-posting system.
Just as with Skype interviews, Caldwell says, "We have to meet the needs of employers. It doesn't serve them to post the same jobs with 20 different schools."
The innovations also serve the universities behind them, which are increasingly judged on their job-placement rates. Two years after beefing up its career office, for example, Wake Forest can tell prospective applicants that barely 5% of its students are unemployed within six months of graduating, well below the national average.
"At new-student days, it's not just, 'Tell me about the faculty.' It's, 'Tell me about the internship process. Tell me about the employment rate at graduation,'" says Matthew Randall, director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College.
Marika Dillard, a Wake Forest senior majoring in philosophy, is more concerned with the career help she's gotten than with her alma mater's motivation for providing it.
"If the university helps itself while benefiting me," she says, "that's great."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, non-partisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It's one of a series of reports about workforce development and higher education.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)