BOSTON — A year ago, Kaitlyn MacDonald was in an enviable position. The high school senior was accepted by four colleges and had to decide which to attend. All had solid academic reputations. But rather than go to a school with big-name recognition, she picked a little-known liberal arts college. The chief reason: It guaranteed her a job after graduation.
"It was definitely a major factor in my decision," says Ms. MacDonald, a freshman at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "I know I will be somewhere in four years and that's reassuring."
Hartwick is among a small but growing number of US colleges that are promising students jobs after graduation in an effort to boost enrollment and encourage early career preparation.
Some are even handing out monthly cash payments to graduates who don't find work in their field. The guarantee phenomenon is something that has been on the rise over the past few years - primarily among liberal arts schools.
With competition to lure top students becoming more intense, these schools see guarantees of all kinds - from tuition freezes to promising graduates a spot in law school - as a way to stand out from the ivy-clad crowd. There is also more interest today among parents and students in an education that will lead to a career.
"For many of these schools, it's a way to give themselves an identity, a character," says David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).
With tuition skyrocketing, more parents, too, are demanding an immediate return on their investment. Consider: It costs an average $38,600 for a public-university education and $81,000 for a private one. "What parents increasingly want is a safety parachute," adds Mr. Warren.
Virtually all universities offer students some kind of career guidance. But with an increasingly competitive labor market, schools see job guarantees as a way to get students to start thinking early about life after midterms and midnight pizza runs.
"Many students don't think about visiting the college career center until the second semester of their senior year when they need to figure out how to write a resume," says Richard Detweiler, president of Hartwick College. "What we're trying to do is discipline students to start thinking about their career early."
At Hartwick, about 75 percent of the school's 1,500 students are participating in its guaranteed-placement program, launched this year. Under the agreement, Hartwick promises a paid internship to any student who completes the four-year program and doesn't have a job or spot in graduate school within six months of graduation.
The program is intended to help students plan what they need to do inside and outside the classroom to be more attractive to prospective employers. Students who participate work with an adviser who helps them find an internship, research job opportunities, and write a resume.
They must also take a public-speaking course, complete an Outward Bound-like "high-ropes" course, and graduate with a 3.0 grade point average. "What we're trying to do is encourage students to do the right things during school," says Mr. Detweiler.
Other schools, too, are trying to get students to "do the right thing." The University of Missouri-Rolla is offering grads who don't find a job a one-year tuition grant at UMR. The school has a reputation for producing skilled engineers, but recruiters say students need stronger teamwork and leadership skills.
"What we're doing is offering a carrot to create a balance," says David Allen, director of UMR's "promise program." "We're trying to get students involved in activities that develop skills besides their technical skills."
Some educators contend that such programs do too much hand-holding, which deters student initiative, and overemphasize getting a job rather than an education. "If the focus is just, 'We'll find you a job,' it will be limited in effect," says the NAICU's Warren.
But supporters argue that such programs foster responsibility. "We create the opportunity, but also give students the responsibility for coming through with the actions," Detweiler says.
For Kaitlyn MacDonald, the program has helped her focus. "It gives me the tools and skills I need to go about a [job search] efficiently and correctly," she says. She also says the job guarantee helped mollify her parents, since they're footing the $25,000-a-year college bill.
Still, some schools are finding it difficult to get students to stay with the rigorous programs for four years. St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., for instance, will pay $417 a month for up to a year to any student who completes its job-guarantee program and can't find work in his or her chosen field within six months of graduating.
The school launched the program two years ago. Of the 309 members of its 1994 freshman class, 151 signed up. Two years later, only 25 of those students are still enrolled. Why? "Good question," says Amy Israel, an assistant in the career services center. "We hate to use the word lazy, but it is something other students in the program use to refer to those who don't continue."
For that very reason, Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., has not set stringent guidelines that students must follow in order to qualify for its job guarantee. Instead, students only have to get some type of related work experience and meet regularly with a career counselor.
"We don't want to set the bar so high that students would not be able to reach it," says Jennifer Clough, director of career services.
Most of the programs have been launched within the past year, so it's too early to gauge the outcomes - on either the students or schools. For many of the colleges, however, guaranteeing students a job doesn't represent a risky step. Many already have high job-placement rates - more than 90 percent. At Manchester College, for example, some 95 percent of students get a job or go on to graduate school within six months of receiving a diploma.
Still, more schools seem poised to start job programs. Says Mr. Allen of UMR: "I think we're on the leading edge of what you'll see for the next 10 to 15 years."