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updated 9/20/2010 8:59:46 AM ET 2010-09-20T12:59:46

As college freshmen nationwide continue exploring their campuses — finding dining halls, laundry rooms, bookstores and gyms — officials at many schools say the newbies are increasingly finding their way to career centers.

Once considered the place for panicked seniors to look for jobs ahead of graduation, college career offices are reporting dramatic hikes in use by first-year students looking for the earliest possible jump on the employment market.

"College is expensive and difficult ... probably the largest single investment that our students will ever make," said John Kniering, career services director at the University of Hartford. "It seems natural that freshman year is not too early to start."

Hartford has seen a 37 percent increase in freshman career counseling appointments since 2006, Kniering said.

Freshmen who are concerned by the nation's 9.6 percent unemployment rate and the prospect of repaying college loans don't want to squander tuition money on irrelevant coursework.

The so-called Millennial cohort is also filled with go-getters, said Nancy Dudak, director of the career center at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

"This generation of college students is used to being busy and having it all," Dudak said. "They had really packed careers in high school. They just look to continue that intensity when they come to college."

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Career centers are also making a concerted effort to target first-years to ensure more relevant guidance and increase student retention. Duke University has seen a 33 percent increase over previous years in freshmen attendance at career center programs, due in part to outreach, said spokesman Chris Heltne.

Outreach is "a matter of self-defense" for career counselors, Kniering said.

Knowing students' skills and passions is important in an age where some professions can appear — think social media consultant — or disappear — think of the financial collapse — in the course of a college career. Encouraging early internships and coursework can help students find the right path without requiring extra classes and tuition money.

"If we see them on the cusp of graduation, often it's too late to make a significant difference," Kniering said.

The career center at Temple University in Philadelphia, which saw a 22 percent increase in use by freshmen last year, held its first event specifically for first-years in late August. Director Rachel Brown was expecting 50 students but got more than 300.

Some students came looking for immediate part-time jobs. But many curious freshmen crowded an area offering handouts, listed alphabetically by major, that were titled, "What can I do with this degree?"

Liz Decker, 18, of Lebanon, Pa., said she was a declared economics major but picked up sheets discussing possible careers in economics, law and business.

"I think there's more pressure now to find a job because there are so few," Decker said.

A survey by the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers showed 24.4 percent of 2010 graduates who applied for jobs actually had them. That's up from last year's figure of 19.7 percent, but way below the 2007 level of 51 percent.

Businesses are also interested in establishing relationships with freshmen to help identify top job and internship candidates as early as possible.

Jim Tutelman, a partner at the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, recruited at a career fair for new students at Temple's Fox School of Business.

Reaching out to freshmen builds a company's name recognition and familiarizes them with the variety of jobs available.

"There are many more opportunities in the public accounting profession," Tutelman said. "You don't necessarily have to be an accounting major."

Temple's recent freshman event, which featured food and raffles, was also designed to get freshmen in the habit of coming to the career center.

"Career stuff tends to feel heavy," Brown said. "What we're trying to do is demystify it, make it less heavy, make it fun. Then the conversations will continue."

Decker said she was surprised at how many fellow students showed up. It made her think college might be more serious than she was anticipating.

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"Freshman year is supposed to be fun," Decker said.

Her friend Lauren Faust, 18, also from Lebanon, expressed optimism about future job prospects.

"I think the economy will be better by then," she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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