The class of 2012 is leaving college with something that many graduates since the start of the Great Recession have lacked: jobs.
To the relief of graduating seniors -- and their anxious parents -- the outlook is brighter than it has been in four years. Campus job fairs were packed this spring, and more companies are hiring. Students aren't just finding good opportunities; some are weighing multiple offers.
In some ways, members of the class of 2012 got lucky. They arrived on campus in September 2008, the same month that Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, touching off a financial crisis that exacerbated the recession.
On campus, they were largely insulated from the collapsing U.S. economy. While older brothers and sisters graduated into a dismal job market, they took shelter in classes.
They used their college years to prepare for the brutal realities of the job market that awaited them. They began networking for jobs much earlier, as freshmen in some cases. They pursued summer internships not simply as resume boosters, but as gateways to permanent jobs. And they developed more realistic expectations about landing a job in the ideal place and at the ideal salary.
On campuses across the country, spirits are more upbeat this spring, and the employment outlook is especially promising, according to interviews with three dozen seniors and directors of career centers.
"It's just been such a dramatic change from what we saw in 2008," says Mercy Eyadiel, who oversees career development at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Back then, openings disappeared overnight, and companies were calling recent graduates to rescind offers.
"It was a very bad, ugly situation," Eyadiel said.
The job market remains tough, even for those graduating from the best universities. Hiring is not back to its pre-recession level, and plenty of seniors are leaving campuses without jobs. Yet this year's graduates are less likely to face the disappointment of moving back in with mom and dad or being forced to work at a coffee shop to pay off loans.
"I was nervous that my college degree would go to waste," says Laura Mascari, who arrived on the University of Delaware's Newark campus in the fall of 2008. Mascari, who received two job offers, will work in marketing -- her major -- for chemicals giant DuPont.
Between September 2008 and August 2010, 6.9 million American jobs were eliminated. In the last year and a half, 3.1 million jobs have been created. The strengthening job market has made a big difference to seniors who are job-hunting in their final semester.
The unemployment rate for college graduates 24 and younger averaged 7.2 percent from January through April. That rate, which is not adjusted for seasonal factors, is down from the first four months of 2011 (9.1 percent), 2010 (8.1 percent) and 2009 (7.8 percent). For Americans overall, the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.
Wake Forest senior Lesley Gustafson started her job search during her freshman year.
She met with a career counselor to discuss her goals. Gustafson picked a double major -- computer science and political science -- that made her more marketable. And she found internships every summer that helped her build skills and a network of professionals to offer advice.
Gustafson was aggressive in other ways, too: She took part in mock interviews offered by the campus career center so that she would be better prepared for real employer interviews.
Gustafson's work paid off. In March, she was offered a job with consulting firm Accenture.
"I knew I would find something," Gustafson says. "I was more nervous finding something that I would be interested in rather than having to take a job just to take one."
Packed career fairs and increased job listings don't necessarily translate into employment, warns Sheila Curran, a career consultant who used to run career centers at Duke University and Brown University. Companies might take the time to meet potential employees in case they start hiring again, but it doesn't mean they are going to make job offers.
Those seniors who do have offers say they treated their search like a full-time job and, after some setbacks, managed to secure employment.