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The long hard climb to work

Internships, though valuable, have compressed college life.

We've renamed our college-writer series "Off Campus." Writers in or just out of college explore the issues of the day from their unique viewpoint.

Sean Coit

will be a senior at St. Joseph's

this fall and is news editor

of the Hawk newspaper

You might have noticed us on the morning train, at the watercooler, or hurrying down Market Street with lunch for the whole office. Maybe you bumped into us in the elevator, and wondered what a college kid was doing in a shirt and tie at 9 a.m.

Perhaps you'll notice it this summer, when instead of a lifeguard tank-top or a fast-food uniform, the 20-year-old from next door pulls out of the driveway in business casual.

What you're seeing is a change in the definition of a college education. Dwindling is the explorative, stress-free "college lifestyle." Many students are now hybrids: part inquisitive, free-thinking students; part focused, goal-oriented pre-professionals.

Our wireless Internet access to iTunes, JSTOR and SparkNotes helps us breeze through the more routine aspects of college life, but the workload hasn't disappeared; it has modernized. It has become increasingly difficult for college students to stay ahead of their peers. The basic skills and knowledge once implicit in an undergraduate degree are now prerequisites for most jobs. Getting that entry-level job at Merrill Lynch now requires much more than decent grades and a finance degree.

So what does it take to get a competitive edge?

Seeking career experience before leaving college, many students have turned to potential post-grad employers. Internships allow students to apply for jobs upon graduation as better qualified candidates, with more on their resumes than a B.A. and a few summers on the beach. The trend snowballs, and suddenly, more students feel the desire, and the pressure, to intern. Most companies now offer internships in the fall and spring semesters, meaning many students are interning while going to school.

Mutual advantage stokes the system. Companies can hire the cheap, hardworking workers they need, and students can get crucial experience that, ideally, kick-starts their careers. The four(ish) years of undergraduate education now include a meet-and-greet for employers and college students.

The trend has exploded. According to MonsterTRAK, the student-aimed segment of the employment Web site, 77 percent of undergrads now complete at least one internship during college, compared with only 46 percent in 2003. Matthew Brink, director of the Career Development Center at Saint Joseph's University, says the trend has picked up. At St. Joe's, 75 percent of seniors have completed an internship, up from just over 50 percent only five years ago.

With tuition rates at all-time highs, students are under increased pressure to ensure that their education produces sufficient bang for thousands of bucks. Pressure extends, too, to universities. Their reputations rely largely on their ability to help place students at competitive jobs upon graduation. They have responded with more highly specified major programs and stringent course requirements (often requiring internships!) for certain degrees.

All of this has brought quite a change on campuses. Drexel University has covered Philadelphia with advertisements for its Co-op program. Career Fairs and Networking Nights keep university assembly halls and ballrooms booked throughout the year. Universities have invested heavily in career centers to ease the process of morphing wide-eyed first-years into confident young adults in the workplace.

The result is an immense time crunch that has transformed higher education into a four-year blur from which students must emerge as polished, prepackaged employees. Most students have only a few (if any) semesters of flexibility before they must zone in on a specific area of study, and "get serious" about their futures. There is now less time to experiment, make mistakes and grow.

"College life" still has much of the reckless, unburdened bliss it once had. But for many students, gone are the summer breaks when, as Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) reminisced in

American Beauty

, they "flipped burgers all summer just to buy an eight-track."

Mark Bauerlein's new book labels ours as

The Dumbest Generation

. He cites a generational reluctance to read and a debilitating reliance on modern technology - and on many levels, he's right. Too many have traded classic literature for online episodes of

The Office

; too many have used SparkNotes and TI-83 calculators as short-cuts. Despite that, this generation is no less capable - and perhaps even more driven - than those before. We're doing more than attending classes and frat parties. We're also walking in the snow to our internships . . . uphill both ways.