LOS ANGELES — It's college recruiting season. On campuses across the country, employers are out in full force, shaking hands, scouting talent, and giving away more T-shirts and duffel bags than Major League Baseball.
That's not all that's free.
Often included in the wooing is alcohol - sometimes plenty of it.
One large sales company that recruited at the University of Texas, Austin, last spring, hosted a margarita party for candidates at a local hotel, then put them up at the hotel.
"Recruiters told students, 'The reason we have you in this hotel is so you can drink as much as you like,' " says Barbara Santos, director of career services.
Yet as alcohol abuse and alcohol-related deaths among individual students continue to rise, universities are taking a hard line. They're pushing companies to do the same - and many are beginning to respond.
"We're concerned that it creates the wrong message between the connection of alcohol and drugs and working," says Alan Goodman, chairman of the Principles Committee of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa.
After receiving increasing reports from career directors about companies serving alcohol at events - including at least one instance of recruiters pressuring students to drink - last month NACE changed its guidelines.
"The old principles said you shouldn't serve alcohol, but if you do, be careful," says Mr. Goodman, director of career services at Catholic University in Washington. "The new one says it's not appropriate."
Mixing alcohol and recruiting isn't new. Wine and cheese parties, for example, have long been a signature of college recruiting. Companies host 50 to 500 students at formal receptions at local hotels, where beer and wine are served. Others throw beer and pizza parties. But in recent years, many have backed off, largely because of liability issues.
"The profession has taken a stronger, more conservative position each year to minimize alcohol in recruiting," says Dana Ellis, director of recruiting at Arthur Andersen in Chicago. "Ten years ago, it was fairly prevalent in recruiting events. Today it is more the exception."
"We used to have a huge problem with it," says Karen Stauffacher, director of the business school's career center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Companies would compete to hold bigger and better cocktail parties, she says. One public accounting firm spent more than $3,000 on one event. "It was not unlike bar hopping," she says. "And many students felt they had to go."
But when the school built a bigger events facility five years ago, it started "strongly encouraging" companies to hold events on campus - without alcohol. "Many [companies] were glad we did this," she adds.
Yet alcohol and recruiting still mix. One company holding an information session at the University of Texas campus advertised "free beer" in its flier, Ms. Santos says.
And while companies may have a "no alcohol" policy, individual recruiters sometimes go against policy. Students at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have reported that after information sessions, recruiters and students headed to the local bar, the career office says.
Still, why serve alcohol at all?
Some companies say it helps them relate to the students. Others say it's a big draw - which can be a competitive advantage in today's tight labor market. "Worst case, [companies] do it because they feel students need to be entertained to be recruited," says Julie Cunningham, a NACE board member and a manager of corporate college relations at Tellabs Inc. in Lisle, Ill. Her firm does not serve alcohol at events.
For other companies, it's about maintaining a certain image among students. "We know intuitively that not providing alcohol is best for all parties," says Arthur Andersen's Mr. Ellis. But "a company can be stereotyped as too liberal or too conservative if it does or doesn't serve alcohol. Some students say, 'It should be my choice.' "
At the same time, career counselors caution recruiters about serving alcohol to test students. "We don't allow people to make [hiring] decisions based on age, race, gender, and disability," says Christopher Pratt, career services director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Why should we encourage them to make it on someone's ability to consume alcohol?"
Some career counselors say companies serve alcohol more for the recruiters than the students. Santos says a recruiter hosting the margarita party told her: "I wouldn't miss this for the world." Some companies say if they did not serve alcohol they'd have a hard time getting their own people to attend.
The whole thing leaves many students plenty confused. Some who don't drink are concerned about how recruiters will view them if they refuse a beer. "Our counselor has met with plenty of students who ... think somehow their candidacy might be jeopardized if they don't drink," Santos says.
In the view of a finance major at the University of Southern California, companies that serve alcohol are unprofessional. "There's a time and a place for it, but it's not [during recruiting]," says the senior, who requested anonymity.
Counselors are making the pitch to students that zero drinks is the best policy. As one says: "Loose lips sink ships."
Not everyone agrees on that stand, either. "We think that zero is better than one, but we also think that zero is unrealistic," says Bob Greenberg, career services director at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, whose office is pushing a "one drink max" rule.