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The Return On Investment

The Return On InvestmentIn a cover story in the Boston Globe's Sunday Magazine, Tufts graduate Patrick Healy reports on one of the most important questions in higher education -- "What do I get for my tuition?"

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.06.02] Admittedly, tuition at colleges and universities around the country is on the rise these days. But so are the opportunities available to students both in and out of the classroom. In the cover story of The Boston Globe's Sunday Magazine, Tufts graduate Patrick Healy wrote about his return to campus to find out what students are getting for their tuition.

Engaging classes, research opportunities, student organizations, sports and internships -- for students at Tufts, college life takes on many different forms. Healy's account of an afternoon following around junior Rob Bellinger is a case in point.

"To the library, to his room, to lunch, to computer lab, to the Daily editorial offices, to his room, to a four-hour shift managing Carmichael dining hall, to a band meeting, to his room, to a coffee shop for hot cocoa while reading Don DeLillo's White Noise for a course on the novel, then to his room again, and, finally, to bed, at 2:30 a.m.," reported Healy.

Bellinger -- like many of the students Healy followed for his article -- has a lot on his plate.

"It's a good day -- intense, full of experiences and little moments that bond Rob to friends and co-workers and [girlfriend] Kristen (plus, a little learning and studying, too)," reported Healy. "It's these experiences that matter most to Rob and many college students."

As tuition at elite universities like Tufts rises, parents, students and university leaders are taking a close look at what services and opportunities colleges provide in exchange for tuition, and for ways to continually expand them.

So what are Tufts students getting for their money?

"At Tufts, it's not only a well-respected faculty and high-speed information technology (that is the greatest new expense in recent years, with Tufts alone buying about 1,200 computers a year for faculty and staff)," reported the Globe. "Tufts also spends endowment and tuition revenue on a $32 million financial aid budget, which lowers the total price tag for about half of its students."

Students also have access to a state-of-the-art fitness center, "wired" dorms and award-winning dining halls. In essence, the University has created a mini city -- with everything from a police force to a movie theater.

According to Healy, "the total cost of creating this little world-unto-itself far exceeds what families actually pay." At schools like Tufts, the administration spends about twice as much on each student as they charge in tuition.

But that doesn't mean college administrators aren't concerned about rising tuition and fees.

"Tufts and Harvard and other schools are taking this [issue] on head on," Healy said in an interview with Boston radio station WRKO. "They know that it's coming. They know parents are beginning to ask, 'What am I actually getting for the money? Am I getting experience or am I getting a product that's really worth it?'"

To help address those important questions, University President Lawrence S. Bacow created a task force to study student experiences at Tufts.

"Tufts -- to its credit -- is undergoing a pretty big exercise in saying: What is the undergraduate experience on campus? What do we want students to be learning? What do we want them to be doing outside of the classroom? How do we connect what the money is going towards -- the product -- to the experience that students are having?" Healy said in the WRKO interview.

Bacow already has some ideas in mind.

"We want to create an intellectually target-rich environment - lots of opportunities for students to find their passion," he told the Globe. "It's not one size fits all. The challenge for us is that nobody passes through Tufts unscathed."

He's begun working on ideas to turn dorms into "learning communities" and dedicate funds to sponsor summer research projects for teams of students and faculty.

It's all part of the student-centered focus at Tufts that is growing increasingly popular around the country.

"For [Tufts undergraduate] Brad Callow, this kind of philosophy means that he can sit at a seminar table with a senior professor and discuss literary theory," reported Healy. "But he can also take classes at the School of Nutrition, or join a popular yearlong program on international citizenship, or sign up with the Tufts child development department's Literacy Corps, which tutors children in Somerville and Medford."

Of course, for many students, the value of college extends beyond the classroom.

"College is so not about the classes," Callow told the Globe. "A lot of it is opportunity to do the things you love. You start realizing who you are. Who am I? You know? It's the first step in becoming independent."

For the increasingly competitive pool of applicants to Tufts, finding a school with the right combination of opportunities is an increasingly important part of the equation.

"The question is, are we optimizing the experience for students?" Bacow told the Globe. "The landscape of American higher education is hugely competitive, and we're now competing at the top tier of that. We can't be complacent."

In the decade since Healy graduated from Tufts, the University has been steadily working to expand its offerings.

"At Tufts today, there's an athletic facility, a new student services building, a beautiful library expansion, and other additions since my time," the Globe reporter wrote in an online chat with readers Monday morning. "The students have only become more competitive academically, according to their admissions profiles (of SATs, grades, etc). But their interests are in many cases the same as students I knew there."

For University leaders, the challenge of providing students with the "biggest bang for their buck" remains at the forefront.

"We want excellent students. Excellent faculty. Whatever we can do within our means to deliver an excellent experience," Steven Manos, Tufts' executive vice president, told the Globe. "In that sense we're like any business -- we're an altruistic business, but we're looking to deliver what our customers want, what they choose."

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