Colleges Define Different Market Niches

At Mount Ida College jobs Are `Job No. One' as school offers career-oriented courses to match student interests

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QUESTION: What kind of college offers degrees in "canine science" (dog grooming), "bereavement counseling" (running a funeral home), and "fashion merchandising" (selling clothes)? Answer: One that is prospering in hard economic times.

While bigger, more traditional colleges are cutting back, Mount Ida College has become one of the fastest-growing small colleges in New England by offering such courses to its student body.

The secret of Mount Ida's success? It responds with lightning speed to the ups and downs of the job market, providing courses that offer trade skills to students more interested in earning money than in acquiring abstract knowledge.

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For example, the college is starting a School of Public Administration to train mid-level bureaucrats because, as the school's new director Gareth Lynch explains, "government is one of the few expanding job areas today."

"Higher education should look at us as a prototypical higher-education institution for the 21st century, given the state of rapid flux in the economy," says Ronald Lettieri, a history professor at Mount Ida.

While many would disagree with that assessment, Mount Ida does illustrate two trends in American higher education: first, the need for schools to show flexibility in responding to students' needs in the 1990s; second, the tendency among small, private colleges to switch from a liberal-arts curriculum to one emphasizing professional education.

About 400 of the nation's small, private colleges made the switch during the 1980s, according to former Kalamazoo College president David Breneman.

Mount Ida's history illustrates why that change occurred. It was founded in 1899 as a girls-only junior college - essentially a finishing school for wealthy young women. By the 1970s, Mount Ida was feeling a double squeeze as many single-sex schools found that they couldn't compete with co-ed counterparts and as expensive junior colleges found that they were losing the battle for students with public community colleges.

So Mount Ida made a radical switch to stay in business: In 1982 it went from single-sex to co-ed and, at the same time, it moved from a junior college to a two-plus-two institution.

Under the two-plus-two concept, students can graduate from the school with an associate's degree or they can go on to earn a bachelor of arts degree at Mount Ida. Today, there are 18 BA programs in addition to the school's 36 associate-degree offerings.

The two-plus-two idea has proved popular with students. Enrollment has grown from 750 students in 1982 to 2,000 today. The overwhelming majority of those students are still in the junior-college division, but the senior-college area is experiencing growth, according to college administrators.

"I like the fact that there's small classes and lots of personal attention," says Heather Chandler, who received an associate degree in computer systems management at Mount Ida and is now enrolled in the liberal-studies BA program. "I know administrators and teachers by name. There's more opportunity when it's that small."

Mount Ida's growth also has been fueled by an aggressive program of merging with other local junior colleges. It absorbed the Chamberlayne School of Design and Merchandising, the Coyne School of Electricity (which trains electricians), and the New England Institute (a school for funeral directors).

As a result of the mergers and increasing enrollment, the number of buildings on the campus in this bucolic suburb of Boston has grown 40 percent during the past decade. But even the building program can't keep up with demand: Some students are being housed in the local Sheraton Hotel until a new dormitory can be built.

"There is an excess of demand for our institution," President Bryan Carlson says proudly. "It's a nice position to be in - and it's an exception to the current marketplace."

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