Ben Nebo knew his combination of majors -- Chinese, philosophy, and justice and peace studies -- wouldn't have recruiters beating down his door with high-paying job offers.

So he joined the Peace Corps.

Many of his friends, also with scattered degrees in liberal-arts studies that don't funnel directly into upwardly mobile careers, joined similar programs that send workers to do good in locales near and far.

"They knew they didn't have any options" besides those programs, said Nebo, who graduated from the University of St. Thomas this spring. "It's kind of a way to postpone getting a real job or to look good for grad schools."

This year, as the economy hit a downturn and employers cut jobs instead of creating them, a record number of graduates applied to programs that try to change the world -- something experts believe is a top priority for today's youth.

At Teach For America, a two-year program that places college graduates in low-performing schools around the country, the number of applicants fell in 2007 but this year jumped 36 percent to nearly 25,000 would-be teachers. Only 3,700 are placed. When the program began in 1990, 2,500 students applied.

Even the Peace Corps, now in its 47th year, has had a 14 percent increase in applicants so far this year over last.

Representatives for the programs cite recent disasters such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina as having deeply affected today's 20-somethings, but local career counselors are more skeptical and credit aggressive recruiting strategies paired with the sketchy job market.

Teresa Swartz, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said current college graduates are experiencing an extended period of adolescence, as the gap between high school and adulthood widens.

It's harder for students to make livable wages right out of school, so they spend a few years exploring, she said.

"There's not too much risk for advantaged kids," Swartz said, adding that many parents are willing to support their young-adult children longer. "They can get these new experiences, they can explore the world. ... and if something were to go wrong, they can always come home."

Minnesota Nice on the road

In colleges and universities around Minnesota, recruiters from Teach For America, the Peace Corps, and similar programs have increased efforts to attract students into the feel-good-but-low-paying jobs, often with a stipend to help pay off student loans.

Teach For America alone spent an additional $2 million on recruitment this year, increasing its recruiting teams to 65 from 48.

The University of Minnesota, Carleton College and St. Olaf College in Northfield and Macalester College and Hamline University in St. Paul were among the top schools sending volunteers to the Peace Corps in 2008.

Additionally, Minneapolis/St. Paul was the national leader in volunteer rates in 2007, according to the most recent study conducted by AmeriCorps on volunteering.

"There's a culture of service," AmeriCorps spokesman Sandy Scott said. "The Twin Cities has a lot to be proud of as far as their leadership and high rates of civic engagement."

Matt Toppin, a 2008 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, majored in political science and international management but said the corporate culture of a summer internship in finance didn't feel right to him. So he looked for something that would be more rewarding.

Toppin was accepted by Teach For America in early January, so his "last senior semester was a lot more stress-free knowing I had a job, and knowing it was a job I really wanted," he said.

Many of his friends, he said, ended up in jobs they weren't passionate about, but were just relieved to have found work at all.

Toppin will start teaching high school math in Florida's Miami-Dade County in the fall.

Jason Perkins, who wants to use his degree in history from Carleton College to get another degree and eventually become a college professor like his father, said he joined City Year, an AmeriCorps program, for the next year as a break between undergraduate work and his next level of school.

For the next eleven months, Perkins will work with a team in Columbia, S.C., doing projects for the local schools.

"We knew we'd need to go to graduate school before we entertain career ambitions," he said of students in similar situations. "A lot of us don't want to just go through and be at school for 10 years."

Nebo, who will earn a master's degree through the Peace Corps, echoed Perkins' sentiment: "Undergrad was not for getting a job. ... Undergrad was simply for learning writing well, speaking well and understanding the world."

Trying to change the world

Carl Brandt, director of the career and community learning center at the University of Minnesota, said students definitely feel more anxiety about the job market this year.

Brandt said recently there has "been an upswing of interest in things like volunteering and contributing to society," based on surveys of incoming students.

At Carleton, Richard T. Berman, head of the career center, said the public-service programs allow students to make the transition more slowly into the world after college.

"It's a way to test the water," he said. "You're making a limited-term commitment."

A year after ignoring e-mail from Teach For America as "junk," 2007 graduate Aberdeen Sather said she is happy in southern Texas, where she teaches high school journalism, and sees the immediate effect of working with her students every day.

With a double major in art and journalism at the University of Minnesota, she knew job prospects weren't great and was attracted by the program's promise of insurance and a steady income paired with the opportunity to help students.

"After taking out so many loans, and going through college being broke, the idea of having a job waiting for you is really attractive," she said.

Emma L. Carew • 612-673-7405