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.
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. . . . 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.
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, noted Sally Rubenstone, who writes CollegeConfidential.com's "Ask the Dean" column.
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.
Other schools proudly point to career prep programs they've created since the recession began at the end of 2007.
Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., "totally revamped" its career services this past year, according to Beth Throne, who heads the school's new Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, with life skills workshops on public speaking, social media, etiquette and even the art of the business meal; job-search boot camp for seniors and recent grads; and more on-campus recruiting. The school also created a database of alumni and willing parents in various fields, and students are aggressively matched to opportunities, resulting "in increased rates of employment."