ST. LOUIS — A degree from one of the nation's top business schools should be enough to make a job search as difficult as choosing what to wear in the morning.
In normal times, that might very well be the case. But with the nation still struggling through its economic malaise, this year's crop of more than 100 MBA students coming out of Washington University's prestigious business school are finding the job search to be rather daunting.
"It's a rough time to come out as an MBA. You can't paint it any other way," said Mark Brostoff, director of the career center at the Olin Business School.
It is, he says, one of the worst markets he's seen, even worse than the one that followed on the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It has the economy playing a key role both in driving record enrollment on colleges campuses across the nation, and in making life difficult for those ready to leave. To be sure, reports suggest that the job market for undergraduates appears a bit stronger this year.
But many companies still are reluctant to go after the pricier graduates such as those with master's degrees in business administration, Brostoff said. The school won't say how many of its graduates are still looking for work, but even many of those who have found jobs say the search has been tough.
Chris Curtis, 28, of University City, spent several months chasing jobs before capturing a position with Anheuser-Busch. It was a search marred by frustration and dead ends.
"A lot of those jobs — you apply, and it goes off into a black hole," Curtis said.
The lean market prompted Peter McCarthy, 39, of St. Louis, to join the school's two-year-old MBA search team program. It puts students in support groups, meeting once a week to offer each other encouragement and advice in sessions designed to improving networking and personal marketing skills.
Working with those other students — some considered among the best in the class — kept McCarthy's spirits up during a lengthy search that finally yielded a job two weeks ago with a local financial services firm.
"You get a lot of rejections," McCarthy said. "But there's a comfort level knowing we're all struggling."
There also seems to be a general understanding among students that this is simply the way things are right now. And that they won't stay this way forever. Relief could be coming as soon this summer or fall, suggests John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based job consulting firm.
"Corporations can ill afford to keep the pipeline closed down to new graduates for too long," Challenger said.
It's the sort of talk that's encouraging for students such as Ashwin Pejaver, 26, of India, who has applied for more than 100 jobs in his quest to find a spot with a multinational company, with an eye toward returning to India.
"There have been a lot of times where I thought I did a good job, and I thought I was close," Pejaver said.
But even as Pejaver and others look to their future beyond college, there's an even larger group of would-be students lining up to replace them. Campuses across the nation have reported record enrollments during the current academic year, and there's no reason to think the coming fall will be any different.
At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, enrollment topped 16,500 students last fall, after hovering in the 15,500 range for four years. St. Louis University witnessed a 4.6 percent increase last year. The same held true at smaller schools in the region, with Fulton's Westminster College reporting an increase of more than 8 percent.
The increases have even prompted the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, to consider limiting freshman enrollment.
Certainly, the economy isn't the only factor involved. Some schools, including MU, see little correlation between the economy and the influx of students.
"There's been steady growth here since before the economy tanked," said Barbara Rupp, the school's director of admissions.
The simple fact, Rupp and others say, is that high school graduating classes are bigger today than yesterday. Yet the influx of larger graduating classes does not, by itself, explain surging enrollment everywhere, experts say.
Law schools across the nation, for example, have seen record numbers of applicants, said Jeff Thomas, director of the pre-law program at New York City-based Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.
"It's a historic trend that we see time and time again related to the economy," Thomas said.
Indeed, all levels of higher education — from community colleges to doctoral programs — are seeing new or renewed interest by those looking for new careers, skills and credentials. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the pool of young adults.
Recent U.S. Labor Department statistics showed 70 percent of last year's high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities — the highest level on record since data collection started in 1959.
"The kids college-bound now are simply more savvy about the value of an undergraduate degree," said Robert Franek, a senior vice president with The Princeton Review, which publishes a mix of college guides and help books.
It's easy to see why, with so many families suffering. High school students are watching their parents struggle with layoffs and job uncertainty. That's particularly true in cities such as St. Louis, which has seen a steady loss of jobs — automobile assembly lines, for example — that once beckoned to students who had no wish to pursue a college degree.
"Those good-paying jobs, where you only needed a high school diploma, are evaporating," said Joanie Friend, director of enrollment management for St. Louis Community College, where enrollment grew by 13 percent this spring.
But even as new students are flocking to campuses, older students aren't always in a hurry to leave. With new job opportunities still tough to come by, some students are prolonging their college careers, pursuing advanced degrees.
That helps in two ways. First, it gives the economy more time to recover. But it also delays the onset of student loan payments, which kick in once the student leaves school.
"They figure they might as well stay in school if they don't have a job or any solid leads when they graduate. They just enroll in grad school," said Alan Byrd, director of admissions for UMSL.
It wasn't exactly the economy that spurred Paul Snitker, 28, of University City, to head back to graduate school at Washington U. But it was certainly on his mind during the past two years.
He watched from the comfort of his classrooms as the economy slid into the tank. He couldn't help but marvel at his good fortune. Surely, he figured, it would all be over by the time he was ready for a job search.
"I thought, great, this is perfect timing. But that turned out not to be the case," said Snitker, who did manage to find a job — only instead of staying in town, he'll be moving to Texas.