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Grinnell College, halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City. First-year students here attend a mandatory career advising program before their classes even start. Credit: Meenakshi Van Zee for The Hechinger Report

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,” said Mark Peltz, dean of careers, life, and service, who sat in the back of the classroom and looked on as a career advisor, 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,” said 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.”

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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.

Mark Peltz, dean of careers, life, and service at Grinnell College, which requires first-year students to begin career planning before their classes even start. “The big problem most campuses have is that students wait until it’s too late,” Peltz says. Credit: Meenakshi Van Zee for The Hechinger Report

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 advisor, Smith said; if they don’t, they find themselves being prodded by their academic advisors. 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,” said 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.”

Clark this fall is launching an initiative connecting first-year students with alumni and others who can review their resumes, offer internships and give career advice.

“The question isn’t, ‘Why do we do it so early?’ ” Curry said. “It’s, ‘Why were we doing it so late?’ Why did it take us so long to figure this out?”

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Yet such programs remain the exception rather than the rule. One reason is that they require resources many higher education institutions don’t have. U.S. colleges and universities employ a median of only three career services professionals apiece, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“It ultimately boils down to: How are you paying for this?” said Peltz, whose private, nonprofit college of 1,700 students midway between Des Moines and Iowa City benefits from a $1.8 billion endowment. (Intel co-founder Robert Noyce attended there, and Warren Buffett was a longtime member of the board of trustees.)

Bowen Mince, a first-year student at Grinnell College, finds it stressful to be thinking about careers before he’s even started classes. But over time, he says, “I think this will be a big help.” Credit: Meenakshi Van Zee for The Hechinger Report

Career advising this early puts pressure on students, too. “It’s overwhelming,” said Bowen Mince, a Grinnell student from New Orleans who is on the tennis team. “I’m thinking about classes. I’m thinking about practice.”

He understands the benefits of starting early, though, Mince said. He spoke after Crawford led him and others through an exercise — fueled by free candy — that included diagramming their interests using colored markers and letting them know they were expected in her office for one-on-one career planning. “The impact on me right now is that I might not remember everything, but over time I think this will be a big help.”

So did fellow first-year Jacey Birkenmeyer. “It’s stressful to think about the future this far in advance,” said Birkenmeyer, who is from Chicago. “I mean, I just went through the whole process of getting into college.” But she also hadn’t thought about what she’ll do after she graduates. “I like that we’re starting this now, because I really don’t know.”

Some faculty and others have pushed back against colleges becoming more career-focused. Students need time to learn and explore, they say.

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Henry Rietz, a professor of religious studies at Grinnell, said helping students focus is about more than getting jobs, however.

“If that was the only thing it was about, faculty would have a problem with it,” Rietz said. “To me I really appreciate an exercise like this, which makes you stop and reflect on who you are and what’s meaningful to you.”

Still, starting to talk about careers with students early remains “a huge shift in terms of how career centers think about delivery of their services,” said Traci Martin, director of the Career Development Office at Goucher College. “Certainly there are some schools doing it, but I haven’t seen an across-the-board shift.”

Goucher this fall for the first time is requiring its first-year students to undergo career training that was previously optional, including courses in their first semester that incorporate such things as networking, personal branding and resume-writing.

Grinnell College first-year student Jacey Birkenmeyer is surprised to have to be thinking about careers when she only just got through the college-application process. But she doesn’t know yet what she wants to do for a living, so, “I like that we’re starting this now.” Credit: Meenakshi Van Zee for The Hechinger Report

Previously, “Students had to make a conscious decision to seek out advising about careers,” said Martin. “They had to intentionally decide they want to go for this. And if there are things you don’t know how to do and it’s intimidating, of course you’re going to procrastinate. If you leave them to opt out, many of them will.”

In fact, only 6 percent of first-year students say they frequently use the services of campus career offices, the UCLA institute found. And just a third of all students say they have ever used each of four principal types of career services — help with resumes and interviews, networking opportunities and career fairs — according to another survey, by the education technology company Cengage.

Instead, most students wait until as late as the last semester of their time in college to start to think about their futures, career advisors say. By the time they’re seniors, only four in 10 college students who want a job have one lined up or an offer of one, a separate UCLA survey found. The numbers are even lower for black and Hispanic students.

“I had [seniors] coming in who had never been to the office and had never thought about career development and were in a massive panic,” said Alyssa Hammond, director of undergraduate career education and outcomes at Bentley University. Bentley also now begins that process in the first year with a new career course Hammond said is attended by 99 percent of first-year and transfer students.

Related: More high school grads than ever are going to college, but 1 in 5 will quit

“We help students tell their story and understand what their story is,” said Hammond. “Many of them have not even given thought to this. They think, ‘I’m only 18 years old. I don’t have a story.’ But actually they do.”

In addition to covering such basics as how to create a LinkedIn profile, the program helps students plan their time in college so it syncs with what they want to do in their careers.

First-year students at Grinnell College in a mandatory meeting with career advisor Megan Crawford on the day before their classes start. Credit: Meenakshi Van Zee for The Hechinger Report

“The reason it’s important to do that early is that the student needs to develop these experiences — not just internships but all of these other experiences that you’re going to get during your college life,” said Hammond. “How are they making you marketable? How are they driving you to a career you’ll really like?”

Some other colleges also have begun to start career advising for first-year students.

From the time they arrive for orientation, each of the undergraduates at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business gets individualized career advising to develop a “career action plan,” for instance. First-year students at Wake Forest University are required to attend a 90-minute college-to-career presentation and, in their second semester, take a 1.5-credit course covering how various majors relate to career options.

Lycoming College this year has added lessons in resume-writing to required first-year English composition courses. Ohio Wesleyan University offers freshmen “first-year Fridays” programs focused on careers, and career planning is also now covered in a mandatory first-year introductory seminar.

Picking a career early not only helps students better organize the rest of their time in college; it can help them graduate on schedule, the advocacy organization Complete College America says. Indecision that leads to switching or delaying majors often costs students wasted credits that make it impossible for them to graduate within four years. The average first-time full-time student who receives an associate degree ends up with 22 credits more than he or she needs; and a bachelor’s degree, 15 excess credits.

Complete College America, which focuses on avoiding such hurdles to graduation, has teamed up with some colleges and state higher education agencies to develop an initiative called Purpose First that uses career advising, among other tools, to steer students more efficiently toward their degrees.

Still, advisors concede, it’s hard to get a first-year student focused on a career when there are friends to make and Frisbees to toss. “Some of you are just really overwhelmed right now,” Crawford told her charges at Grinnell. “You’re trying to get used to your weirdo roommate. That’s okay.”

But they shouldn’t wait too long, Smith said.

“We’re trying to change the culture a little bit where this becomes part of what you do,” he said. “Because if you let kids wait till senior year, they’re not going to be competitive.”

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired,

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