Ben Nebo knew his combination of majors — Chinese, philosophy, and justice and peace studies — wouldn't have recruiters beating down his door with high-paying job offers.
So he joined the Peace Corps.
Many of his friends, also with scattered degrees in liberal-arts studies that don't funnel directly into upwardly mobile careers, joined similar programs that send workers to do good in locales near and far.
"They knew they didn't have any options" besides those programs, said Nebo, who graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., this spring. "It's kind of a way to postpone getting a real job or to look good for grad schools."
This year, as the economy hit a downturn and employers cut jobs instead of creating them, a record number of graduates applied to programs that try to change the world — something experts believe is a top priority for today's youth.
At Teach For America, a two-year program that places college graduates in low-performing schools around the country, the number of applicants fell in 2007 but this year jumped 36 percent to nearly 25,000 would-be teachers. Only 3,700 are placed. When the program began in 1990, 2,500 students applied.
Even the Peace Corps, now in its 47th year, has had a 14 percent increase in applicants so far this year over last.
Representatives for the programs cite recent disasters such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina as having deeply affected today's twentysomethings, but local career counselors are more skeptical and credit aggressive recruiting strategies paired with the sketchy job market.
Teresa Swartz, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said current college graduates are experiencing an extended period of adolescence, as the gap between high school and adulthood widens.
It's harder for students to make livable wages right out of school, so they spend a few years exploring, she said.