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Last month the national unemployment rate hit a 25-year high at 8.1 percent. Big names on Wall Street are tanking, and on-campus recruiting has fallen significantly. So what's an increasingly desperate senior to do? More and more are putting their pricey degrees toward benefitting society.

With fewer opportunities in lucrative fields like consulting and investment banking, applications for public-service programs are on the rise. Teach for America, which hires recent college graduates to work in America's neediest schools, has received more than 35,000 applications for this year's teaching corps - a 42-percent increase over last year's already-record numbers. Even smaller, lesser-known programs with philanthropic goals have received huge increases in applicants. Philly Fellows, a yearlong program that places recent graduates at nonprofit agencies, is currently recruiting for its fourth cohort, and the applicant pool has nearly doubled from last year.

It seems that the recession has caused more graduates to turn to public service, but the real question is "Why?" Maybe people, especially privileged Penn grads, feel more obligated to help others in these financially trying times. And maybe Obama's call to serve our nation, specifically directed toward young people, has inspired more graduates to pursue public service.

But I believe self-interest plays a role in many students' choice - public service, after all, is a better alternative to living at home with your parents while waiting for an upswing in the economy.

There are, of course, many students who wanted to apply for these types of jobs even before the economy floundered. Dan Ross, a College senior, applied for TFA in mid-September. "I knew I wanted to do [TFA] for a really long time - probably when I first heard about it in middle school," he said. "I've always been passionate about children and education."

But the application statistics for this year suggest that many Penn seniors turned to TFA after other options didn't work out. Last year, 130 Penn seniors applied for the program, and this year that number rose to 188. That's about a 45-percent increase overall, but the statistics for later application deadlines are even more dramatic: Last year 25 students applied for the third deadline (out of four), compared to 39 this year. And applicants for the final deadline, which fell on Feb. 13, literally doubled from 26 to 52. TFA recruiter Matthew Reamy explained that this was quite different from last year's distribution of applicants over the deadlines.

"Usually [applications] trail off at the end of the year," he said. "There are a lot fewer jobs at this point in the year."

It makes sense that graduates would turn to this option when other jobs are not readily available. Possibly the most compelling reason is that there will always be a need for these types of positions. Cortney Walker, the site manager for D.C. Teaching Fellows, pointed out that education is a field that will always need people.

"In that way, there's more job security for those who choose teaching as a career," she said.

Many graduates are finding that the security of having a job for a year or two is well worth a lower salary. Additionally, what's good for society just might be good for the resume as well.

In high school we knew to present ourselves as well-rounded individuals in our college applications, and for many this entailed pursuing a philanthropic extracurricular activity. The same logic can easily be applied to resumes for potential future employers, and might be even more important if the job market remains this competitive. It's also undeniable that public service can develop skills valuable for any type of employment.

In the end, it really doesn't matter why students are choosing more philanthropic post-graduation pursuits, even if their motivations are not entirely altruistic. Tim Ifill, executive director of Philly Fellows, summed up the sentiments of many public-service executives. "I'm pretty excited to see so many people interested, for whatever reason," he said.

Who knows? Students might just find they like teaching or nonprofit work a lot better than the 100-hour-a-week i-banking job they originally set their hearts on. And not to be cheesy, but who can put a dollar value on the satisfaction of making a difference in someone's life?

Katherine Rea is a College sophomore from Saratoga, Calif. Rea-lity Check appears on alternating Fridays. Her email address is

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