As more Americans find themselves out of work, many are heading back to school, but not in the way you might imagine. They're returning to campus not to attend class but to take advantage of their alma maters' career counseling services.
The U.S. unemployment rate has steadily risen over the past 10 months to a high of 8.1 percent in February, and college career counselors see those statistics in the flesh every day.
University career centers across the country report a surge of alumni streaming through their doors looking for jobs -- from recent college grads who've lost entry-level positions to alumni in their 50s who've been laid off from high-paying jobs.
In the struggle to locate jobs in the current economy, university career centers are on the front lines. The centers provide a wide variety of services, from access to job databases to career development workshops to one-on-one counseling.
Colleges see alumni career service as an obligation, says Edwin Koc, the director of strategic and foundation research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
"So many colleges have traditionally provided these kinds of services, and they see it as part of their mission to continue the career development and job placement that's associated with having a college degree," Koc said.
But Koc also believes that the spike in alumni needs is causing problems at some college career centers. More than ever before, current students are being asked to compete not only with their peers for work but also with alumni who search through the same job databases.
Counselors face heavy demands on their time, and even as the centers try to help more people, state budget cutbacks are putting the pinch on public universities' career center funding.
"The career centers are geared toward serving current students," he said. "But with more alumni returning, it kind of stretches everybody's resources."
For private schools, offering career services to alumni is an essential way to maintain a lifelong connection with their graduates. Jerry Donahue, director of career services at St. Norbert College, a small liberal arts school near Green Bay, Wis., serves a student body of about 2,000.
"For private schools like Norbert, we have a commitment to people who make a choice not to go to a state school," Donahue said. "Because of that, students become part of this alumni family, and one of the services you can provide them, besides asking them for money all the time, is career services."
Unlike many other colleges, St. Norbert does not charge its alumni for the services it provides.
Donahue said he has seen a jump in alumni sending resumes online and calling for help but said his office can deal with the demand. "If it gets to be a larger number, who do you serve first, your own students or your alumni?" he asked. "A lot of schools aren't set up to do both. In our case, we can still do it."
At many larger state schools, they've answered that question by focusing on current students' career needs. And those are significant needs at a school like UCLA, with nearly 27,000 undergraduates. UCLA charges its graduates a fee to use its career databases because the career office is not funded to support alumni services.
UCLA Career Center Director Kathy Sims noted that if her career counselors are spending their days helping alumni, "it's time of my professional counseling staff not being spent with my undergraduates."
Sims does rely on UCLA's alumni as a resource for current students looking for professional advice and job opportunities. But giving alumni extensive career services would require a much larger investment on the part of the university because the needs of students and older alumni are so different. For UCLA, Sims said, "Our focus is on our primary constituency: current students and newly minted grads."
One large public university system has found a way to meet the needs of both current students and alumni. The University of Illinois maintains career centers on each of its campuses to serve students, but the school's Alumni Association funds its own Alumni Career Center dedicated to serving UI graduates.
The center offers some free services and more extensive services, such as individual counseling for a third of the price charged by private outplacement firms. Counselors there say they now have nearly twice as many alums contacting them through e-mail, phone and office visits than they did a year ago.
"We are seeing an increase across the board," said the center's vice president, Julie Hays Bartimus, "from people that have significant experience to people who graduated last May."
UI's Alumni Career Center has offered its services since 1987. Bartimus maintains that an office dedicated to alumni careers gives real value to a degree from the university.
"When you're working with traditional students, a majority of them come to you with fairly similar skill sets," she said. "But with alumni with experience, you have to look at what they've been doing and fine-tune the process for them."
And with more and more alums now returning to campuses for help finding work, college career offices are certainly fine-tuning their own approaches to meeting alumni needs.