Clara Shaw Hardy admits she was a little nervous when her son told her he wanted to major in music in college.

She knew that was his passion. But as a mom, she was hoping he'd pick something a little more … practical.

That may explain why Hardy, a professor of classics at Carleton College, is so sympathetic to a new program designed to help her own students find a career that pays the bills.

This fall, Carleton launched an interactive website, called Pathways, as a "one-stop" shop for those who wonder how to turn a history or philosophy degree into a meaningful career.

At the same time, it's asking professors who teach subjects from French to women's studies to Shakespeare to take on a new role: advising students to start career planning as soon as they arrive on campus.

"When I got here 20 years ago, I know I would have found it almost offensive," Hardy said. "But there's been a culture shift."

At today's prices, even elite schools like Carleton, in Northfield, are feeling the pressure to justify the value of a liberal arts education. "[It's] a hot-button issue," said Louis Newman, associate dean and a professor of religious studies. Especially among parents.

"They're spending all this money on a college education; they want their students to have something marketable when they finish," he said.

Paths to 'Life after Carleton'

Carleton, one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country, has no shortage of customers. In the past year, it had 14 applicants for every spot in its current freshman class of 527. It's also the priciest college in Minnesota, at $58,000 a year for tuition, room and board.

"Carleton does a great job of educating students," Newman said. But last year, as part of a strategic plan, officials decided they could do more to help students "prepare for life after Carle­ton."

The Pathways project, he says, was the response: an all-purpose website to help students explore the careers that might interest them. "So they don't get to the end or middle of their senior year and say, 'Oh, what now?' "

To create the site, staffers started combing a database of past Carleton grads, more than 8,000 since 1990, to find out what kind of jobs they have now. They identified the most popular career paths — such as business and finance, medicine, law, education — and created a section for each.

Interested in government or politics? Here are some potential job titles ("foreign service officer, policy analyst, senator"). And recommended courses (History 212: The American Revolution). And links to clubs, internships and fellowships, as well as alumni willing to act as mentors (the website is public, but the alumni links are limited to Carleton students).

The centerpiece of the site is the "career path visualization," an interactive chart that shows where grads from individual majors ended up. Click on history majors, for example, and it shows them spread across the professions, from business, law and education to museum curators and actors.

At first, Newman admits, there was some resistance to the "careerist focus" of the Pathways project. Some faculty members worried that students would feel pressure to abandon more cerebral studies, like philosophy or art history, for more practical ones like computer science.

"We had to make very clear from the get-go," said Newman, that "this is all about exploring. It's about branching out. The last thing in the world we want to do is start narrowing their interests too soon into some career path. That's not the point of this kind of education."

But when they saw the result, many were pleasantly surprised.

"I think that what it actually shows is the value of the kind of education we're offering," said Tim Raylor, an English professor who specializes in 17th century literature. "We've got English majors who are now architects, who are internal medicine specialists. It gives us the warrant and the evidence to say to students, 'Don't panic.' "

Cathy Yandell, a French professor, agrees. "We also have plenty of French majors who went into medicine, law, business and finance," she said. "I often tell students just keep doing what you're drawn to. And what you're drawn to will tell you something about what you want to do."

Newman calls it "a remarkable tool" that shows "you can major in just about anything at Carleton and end up doing just about anything in the world."

A skeptical voice

But that message can be somewhat misleading, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. "I wouldn't tell them that it doesn't matter what you major in," he said. For many jobs in today's market, he said, it does.

What makes Carleton, and other elite colleges, different is that most of their students go on to graduate school, he said, where they learn their professions.

"That's terrific," he said. But, "I always get troubled when I see classics professors trying to sell classics as a good career, because they're always stretching the truth."

Newman is quick to point out that this isn't just about finding a job.

"The value of the liberal arts education is that it trains you very broadly to think and write and express yourself and analyze problems," he said. That, he said, is why most students choose a school like Carleton.

The new Pathways project, he said, will help them see that there's value in those skills in the workplace.

As of last week, Serena Chalaka, 18, a Carleton freshman from near Seattle, admitted she hadn't yet checked out the Pathways site. At this point, she said, she has no idea what she wants to be, and she's taking classes in dance, economics and Chinese.

But even though she just started her college career, she knows the clock is ticking. "There is slight pressure to find a place where I'll be happy," she said. "You put it off for too long, you can find yourself lost."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384