Office of College Communications, AP Photo/Franklin & Marshall College
NEW YORK — When Kitty Wo's eldest daughter started at Scripps College in California in 2002, "we thought a liberal arts education would be a wonderful thing," she said. "There was no pressure."
Her two younger daughters graduated from Scripps in 2008 and 2012, and "with each successive child, we've thought more about their career path and what field of study would be best," said Wo, who lives in Honolulu. "Each girl's experience led the next one to being a lot more proactive," with internships and other job-related experiences.
Wo's middle daughter, an economics major, even worried that her younger sister's media studies major wasn't practical. "Her sister was thinking, "Oh my God, you're watching movies?'" Wo recalled with a laugh.
All of Wo's daughters landed jobs, but their shift in attitudes tells a bigger story. While some top-tier schools can still attract students by promising self-discovery and intellectual pursuits, many colleges have changed their emphasis in the years since the recession hit. Instead of "Follow your passion," the mantra has become more like, "We'll help you get a job."
Schools have revamped career centers, expanded internship programs and pushed alumni to serve as mentors. The changes are not only in response to a tough job market, but because parents are demanding that graduates be prepared for the workplace.
"Parents and students' questions and concerns have changed just as much as society has changed," said John Fraire, vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. "Questions about job security, income, graduation rates — it's to be expected."
When Stephanie Albano worked as a student tour guide at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., she was equipped with a fact sheet on job placement rates, average salaries for graduates and other statistics. High school kids on the tours didn't ask about jobs, said Albano, who's now in law school, "but parents always did. It was the first question out there from parents. They want to make sure their kids are not going to end up moving back into their basements."
Between 1966 and 2010, bachelor's degrees in the humanities halved, from 14 percent of all degrees awarded to 7 percent, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Sally Rubenstone, who writes CollegeConfidential.com's "Ask the Dean" column, says "there is certainly concern, particularly at the liberal arts schools where they're worried that they're not going to be perceived as pragmatic in a competitive job market."
But a few colleges have benefited from the shift in values. "Colleges like Northeastern and Drexel are really coming up in the world because they offer co-op programs," where students spend several semesters in full-time jobs related to their studies, usually with pay, Rubenstone noted.
In the last six years, Northeastern University's ranking on U.S. News & World Report's college survey has soared from 98 to 56. And even though Northeastern's tuition now tops $40,000 a year, applications have increased more than 40 percent since 2009, while SAT scores of incoming students have steadily risen.
Spokeswoman Renata Nyul says Northeastern's co-op program is a "huge reason" for its popularity. "Our mission is to provide a real-world experience and an education that's rooted in the integration of rigorous classroom learning and real-world professional experience," she said. "That's been the ethos of this place for a long time, but lately is seems to really resonate."
Co-ops can also pave the way for permanent employment, Nyul says: "Ninety percent of our graduates are employed full-time and 87 percent are doing something related to what they majored in."
While Northeastern's co-op model is a century old, many other schools proudly point to career prep programs they've created since the recession began at the end of 2007.