The real value of a college degree has been a hot media topic in recent months -- a discussion fueled by rising tuition costs, high unemployment rates for new graduates, and surveys released within the past year by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup. Those reports found, respectively, that while 96% of college provosts thought their schools did a good job of preparing students for the working world, only 11% of business leaders agreed.

One university is trying something new: requiring its junior- and senior-year business students to use real-world tools, including the job site Glassdoor, for career, salary, and job research during a four-class series designed to clarify the gap between the reality of the working-world and students' sometimes murky expectations.

The business of building a career
The University of Central Florida's College of Business Administration, the third largest undergraduate U.S. business school, rolled out the new program this semester. The required for-credit series focuses on professional development and career skills, not just in general terms, but in detail for each student. As part of the new program, job search and review site Glassdoor put together custom tools for UCF's business school, explaining its features and likening its service to Yelp and other online review sites that students are already familiar with.

Glassdoor already provides access to students at more than 1,000 universities and colleges through its College Partnership Program, but the UCF program is the first to require students to use the job site as part of the curriculum. That insistence on having students delve into the details of the job market well before graduation is what sets the new program apart, said Lonny Butcher, director of the college's Office of Career Counseling.

"Lots of colleges have career exploration classes, but usually a student would take them in their freshman or sophomore year," Butcher said in an interview with The Motley Fool. "Our classes are designed to be less about concepts and more about activity."

Butcher, who spent two decades working in human resources before moving into higher education, noticed that today's graduates, generally speaking, didn't seem much better prepared for the transition into working life than he and his peers did when they graduated. "I just knew I wanted to move to Atlanta after graduation. And I did. I sat in my roommate's parents' basement, and we looked at each other and said, 'What now?' And I don't think much has changed since then."

Closing the gap between expectations and reality
Butcher noticed a mismatch between the expectations of many students and the reality of the working world. "Students will say, 'I want to be an investment banker.' That's awesome! Do you want to move to New York? And they say, 'No, I'm going to stay in Orlando.' So we have students who are working from a position of 'I want' and not from a position of what they know."

That gap between wishes and facts may help explain why recent college graduates have a higher rate of unemployment than the general population -- 10.9% compared to 6.2%. And new grads aren't the only ones trying to navigate that gap in expectations. A recent Glassdoor survey of employees found that 6 out of 10 workers said a job they were hired to do was different from the job that was described in the interview.

Perhaps most importantly, Butcher said he found that many students didn't realize that the job search process needs to begin well before graduation. "They think, 'I'm going to get to graduation and this job will just happen.' What they don't know is that the job that happens when they graduate is not something that falls put of the sky. It's the product of the work they put in over those two years when they're getting ready to graduate."

Teaching students to be job-search savvy
To help students lay the groundwork for post-graduation life, Butcher drew on his HR experience and connections. The career counseling office is now staffed with coaches drawn from HR and recruiting to provide a working-world perspective. Over the four-class series, students match their assessments with job types; research careers, cities, companies, and salaries; develop an action plan; learn networking skills; and craft a detailed career map designed to carry them years beyond graduation. "We want to help students become better consumers of employment opportunities," Butcher said.

To that end, students are required to use Glassdoor to research their career options, right down to specific jobs, companies, and cities. "If, for instance, a student says they want to be an accountant with Hilton, I want Glassdoor reviews to factor into that decision." Because Glassdoor's database is so large, with more than 315,000 companies, students can find data on particular jobs in different parts of the country, read employee reviews, and compare company benefits.

A very important way the site helps prepare students is by offering a reality check on income expectations. "From the students' perspective, they think, 'I'm going to start my career in human resources and make $65,000 a year.' The advantage with Glassdoor is it's not just me telling [them] they're going to start at $35 to $40K. They can do that research on their own. That information is put in there by others working in that field, and they will find that valid."

"Graduation isn't an endpoint"
The UCF program is brand-new, so it will be a couple of years before there are measurable results to evaluate. But anything that leaves students better prepared to find satisfying work after graduation adds value to the college experience. For Butcher and the career counseling staff at UCF's business school, that's the point. "We focus more on what do you want to do in your life rather than, 'This is how you graduate.' Graduation isn't an end point, it's a step in the process."

Asked if there are plans to expand the program, Butcher said he would love to see it taken up by other colleges at UCF and by other universities as well. Glassdoor public relations associate Allison Berry said her company stands ready to help. "We encourage all universities to come at it from this approach, in terms of preparing their students for careers after graduation."

Academic purists may insist that the college experience shouldn't focus on training for the working world, but the career professionalism program at UCF is a smart service to provide, and not just from the students' perspective. In the midst of the current debate about the value of a degree and ongoing grumbling about rising costs, more specific and realistic career preparation would help colleges prove their worth to skeptics. Because the sooner new graduates find work in their chosen fields, the sooner they can start paying off their student loans -- and the sooner the value of their college degrees will become apparent.

Casey Kelly-Barton has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Yelp. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.