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The Podium

Colleges at a tipping point

The national average for federal and private loans for undergraduate students is $34,000. Over a 40-year career, a college graduate is likely to earn $800,000 more than someone with only a high school diploma, a return that pays the initial investment back more than 23 times.

A long range forecast, though, offers little solace to prospective college students and their parents, who are asking themselves in growing numbers if the investment in a four-year education — as much as $200,000 at some schools — will provide the more immediate return of a good job upon graduation.

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From day one, colleges need to develop a laser-like focus on turning whatever undergraduates are studying into marketable job skills. At our school, we’ve increasingly taken that approach. Over the past four years, better than 90 percent of our graduates have found jobs in their fields within six months of earning their degrees.

All of our students take a one-credit course called the Professional Development Seminar from freshman through senior years. Students work on honing their communication skills and progress to developing portfolios of their work, researching fields and employers of interest, and practicing their interview skills.

While the career offices at many colleges focus on similar priorities, few offer them day in and day out as part of the required curriculum.

Doing internships early and often — some for credit, others for experience — also has made a difference in the career prospects of our graduates. In fact, our professors negotiate with organizations and businesses to raise the level of experience that our interns take away.

While the bottom line is that a college education is worth it, those of us in charge of that education have to do more to manage our own bottom lines. Runaway health costs may grab more of the headlines, but higher education costs have followed the same trajectory, and then some.

The three-year college degree was once a novelty. For many students nowadays, it could be a financial necessity. Colleges — especially private ones like ours — could promote that kind of degree, and increase capacity on a largely unused campus, by rolling out a comprehensive summer term with the same courses offered during the fall and spring terms.

Paying stipends to the existing faculty, without having to pay additional benefits to new teachers, could generate considerable savings that could be passed along in the form of lower tuition for these summer terms. Similar savings and increased classroom capacity could also come from implementing more “blended learning,” in which students come to class one day and interact online on others.

That’s the easy part. We also have to be prepared to make hard personnel decisions, on both faculty and staff positions, without being Draconian. Many classes that have 10 or 15 students enrolled could accommodate up to 30 without compromising their educational impact.

Likewise, we can reduce sections of certain courses, eliminate courses that are chronically undersubscribed, and even cut entire majors that are graduating too few students, all in the name of focusing on what our “consumers” need and keeping their tuition in line.

Colleges also are investing heavily in large building projects, from burgeoning athletic facilities to dormitories than can rival some uptown apartments. At Nichols, we’re about to dedicate a new, $10 million student center, which we think will improve the quality of campus life.

But all of us need to take a harder look at what qualifies as a needed addition and to scale back on what has become a veritable arms race of capital improvements.

All of these approaches and ideas — from promoting the value of a college education to taking a hard look at our budgets — may sound like we’re running a business, albeit a very special one. We are. We all have to do more to make sure our customers are getting what they’re paying for, and that we don’t price them out of the market.

Susan West Engelkemeyer is president of Nichols College in Dudley.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Susan West Engelkemeyer’s title. She is president of Nichols College.

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