GRINNELL, Iowa — The bleary-eyed 18-year-olds shuffling into a nondescript classroom wearing flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts glanced enviously out the windows at their classmates tossing Frisbees on the grassy quad.
It was the final day of first-year orientation at Grinnell College, with classes scheduled to start the next morning, and these new students were still finding their way around the campus, meeting neighbors in the dorms and waiting to hear whether they got into the courses they wanted.
But first they had been beckoned to this room to start preparing for life after graduation.
Grinnell is among a small but growing number of colleges and universities that, increasingly judged on graduates' placement rates and job satisfaction, are beginning to advise students about careers before their classes even start.
"The big problem most campuses have is that students wait until it's too late," says Mark Peltz, dean of careers, life and service at Grinnell, who sat in the back of the classroom and looked on as a career adviser, Megan Crawford, welcomed this group with the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker. "So we just thought, 'Let's turn it around.' "
It's a strategy now buttressed by a new survey of 6,000 recent graduates, which found that the earlier college students had started looking for a job – and preparing for it by participating in internships and other career-related experiences – the happier they eventually were with their careers.
But the survey, by the enrollment consulting firm EAB, found that only a minority of students take this path. Just 16 percent began their job search a year or more before graduating, and half didn't start until they finished college. About three in 10 worked a paid internship or attended an on-campus recruiting event.
"We're all waking up to how far we need to move the needle here," says Brandon Chinn, associate principal on EAB's student success team. "Students don't know that they need to do these things, and the more we can stitch that into their core college experience, the better."
This new attention to career advising largely stems from growing expectations that institutions will help students get good jobs – which 85 percent of first-year students rated as "very important" among their reasons for going to college in the first place, according to a national survey conducted by an institute at UCLA. That's more than any other reason they considered "very important," including "to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas" and "to learn more about things that interest me."
Parents also rank career services as a top priority when picking a college, according to internal research shared by Washington University in St. Louis, which hosts a discussion not for students, but for parents, when they drop off their children for first-year orientation; it's among the week's most heavily attended events, associate vice chancellor and dean of career services Mark Smith said.
Near the start of students' first year, Washington University offers them one program on networking and another – new this fall – that tests their newfound skills at a reception with alumni. Students are also now tracked based on whether they attend a career event, come to the career office or meet one-on-one with a career adviser, Smith says; if they don't, they find themselves being prodded by their academic advisers. It's a kind of intervention that suggests how seriously some schools have begun to take this work.
"The higher education market is incredibly competitive, so to be a competitive institution, you have to go beyond an amazing education and a great faculty," says Donna Curry, who took over in March as executive director of alumni and student engagement at Clark University. "Liberal arts institutions especially have to prepare our students with these skill sets to be competitive [job] candidates."