Two students spend an hour each week with a professor; one presents a paper while the other critiques.

“If everything goes well, I just sit back and make sure no one hits anyone,” said Morton Schapiro, president of Williams College in northwest Massachusetts.

It’s an expensive, economically inefficient way to teach, admitted Schapiro, who is an authority on the economics of higher education.

But reallocating resources into intensive training in critical thinking and communications skills has been worth the effort, as the program has given Williams an edge in competing for students with more internationally well-known institutions such as Harvard and Yale, he explained in recent interview.

As such, the college may offer a model for smaller Japanese colleges seeking a similar edge as competition intensifies.

Sliding enrollment amid the continuing decline in the nation’s birthrate has thus far forced 16 private universities in Japan to announce plans to merge as revenues fall.

Some have opted to hike tuition, while others are overhauling their curricula to entice students normally drawn to larger institutions blessed with funds, facilities and alumni connections.

Regardless of the stagnant economy, figures compiled by the Public Management, Home Affairs and Posts and Telecommunications Ministry show that households are spending more on their children’s education so they might enter the most prestigious institutions: an average of 16,248 yen in May, a year-on-year increase of 4 percent.

Schapiro said that these critical periods when schools are forced to readjust to the market are in fact opportunities for them to think about the significance of a four-year degree — both for themselves and their students.

“Are they making people more productive, teaching them critical language skills, critical thinking skills and quantitative skills?” Schapiro asked. “Or are they merely credentialing?”

Schools need to do their best to raise funds and reallocate internal resources to draw out what is most appealing about smaller colleges, he added.

But a top liberal arts college like Williams can afford individualized training.

As of the end of June 2001, the market value of Williams’ endowment and investments stood at more than $1.3 billion. That sum was greater than 10 times its operating expenditures, and more than 26 times the revenue the school gets from undergraduate tuition. Grants and gifts from 64 percent of alumni further allowed the school to offer complete need-based aid to international students starting this this fall.

Schools in Japan, on the other hand, have little time to turn around their programs. According to the education ministry, tuition and entrance fees in fiscal 2000 made up roughly 75 percent of private colleges’ revenues on average, with endowments heavily concentrated among the largest schools.

“That makes them extremely sensitive to tuition shortfalls,” Schapiro acknowledged. “But schools figure out what the markets want. Higher education institutions are much more resilient than most people think they are.”

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