Sean Bell McDermott (left), a senior at Franklin & Marshall College, meets with student development advisor Lori Clark.
Sean Bell McDermott (left), a senior at Franklin & Marshall College, meets with student development advisor Lori Clark. - 

At Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, most students never visited the career center until senior year. It was tucked away in a dorm across the street from the main campus. Students needed a key fob to get in.

“It wasn’t very welcoming and inviting, and certainly wasn’t on the admissions tour,” says Joe Holt, chief of staff at the small liberal arts school.

But when prospective students and parents visit these days, Holt says, they ask about the career center. They want to know what the college is doing to help students get internships and land jobs after graduation.

Come January Holt will have something to show them: a new $1 million career center in a converted boiler house. The new center will have a comfy lounge and rooms with built-in cameras, so students can watch how they do in mock interviews. It will be right in the heart of campus.

“Now you just have to stop in on the way to class,” says Holt. “It also sends a powerful message to prospective students about the value we place on this, by giving such important real estate to this function.”

As college gets more expensive, schools are under more pressure than ever to produce graduates who can get good jobs. The pressure doesn’t just come from students and parents. The Obama Administration is working on plans for a college rating system, which could factor in things like employment and student loan repayment rates.

Most colleges just haven’t invested enough in career services, says Edwin Koc, director of research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. He says the typical career counselor serves 1,500 students.

“They toil away with extremely limited resources, and so the students don’t see the career center as central to being successful at the school,” he says. “For a lot of students the career center becomes an afterthought.”

Even if most colleges can’t afford a sparkly new building, more schools are working to change what goes on inside.

In old brick house at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, senior Sean Bell McDermott climbs the creaky stairs for an advising session. Three years ago, F & M transformed its traditional career center into an Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development. Along with the usual coaching on resume writing and interviewing, the office does workshops on financial literacy, business etiquette, and other life skills.

Every student is assigned a student development advisor, starting freshman year. Today McDermott talks with advisor Lori Clark about how to network with alumni.

“Once you actually get them on the phone, what do you think will be some of the things that you would ask about?” Clark asks.

“I always ask them what their major was, and how it led them to where they are now,” McDermott says.

She has a ready answer because she’s met with Clark at least a dozen times. She’s already done two internships—one through an alumni connection. McDermott doesn’t seem at all nervous about graduating into a still shaky job market.

“You also know that it doesn’t end when you graduate,” she says. “I can come back here and keep using their resources.”

Beth Throne, associate vice president of student and post-graduate development, led the overhaul at Franklin & Marshall.

Before, she says, just about 20 percent of students interacted with the career center — mostly seniors. Last year almost 75 percent went to a workshop, checked in online, or met with an advisor.

“When students have interacted with us over the years, they will be clearer about what they want to do after college,” says Throne. “They will leave with connections in their industry and beyond who will be there to mentor them long after they graduate.”

And how are students faring after graduation? Throne says nearly 80 percent of the Class of 2014 has landed—in jobs or grad school—less than six months out. It’s hard to say if that’s an improvement, because the college didn’t really track that kind of data until now.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports