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Many colleges and universities--including prestigious Ivy League schools--are taking steps to develop their students' proficiency in writing, a problem area most officials attribute to poor preparation in secondary school.

Starting with next year's freshmen, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, will require all students to demonstrate writing proficiency before they graduate.

And beginning this year, the University of Massachusetts will test all entering freshmen in writing proficiency. The test will sort students into three ability groups: those who need a freshman writing course; those who require intensive coaching before entering a writing course; and those few whose competence exempts them from the writing-course requirement. In addition, the university will require all students to take a second three-credit writing course in the junior year to help them develop the writing skills appropriate to their chosen discipline.

Financial-aid offices at colleges across the country are in serious disarray this fall, according to campus officials interviewed recently by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cuts in the 1983 federal budget for student aid affect every major program, and financial-aid officers still have not been told how much federal money they will be able to spend this year under some aid programs.

In addition, the Department of Education has been late in issuing key rules governing student loans and has required more validation of Pell Grant applications, thus throwing financial-aid offices off schedule. As a result, a substantial number of students registered for classes without knowing how much aid they would receive for the year.

Across the country, tuition for this fall rose by an average of 20 percent at public colleges and universities and about 13 percent at private institutions, the College Scholarship Service reports.

In the public sector, tuition and fees at four-year institutions now average $979, compared with $815 last year; at two-year schools, the average is estimated at $595, up 18 percent from last year. At private four-year colleges and universities, the average tuition is $4,021, compared with $3,552 a year ago. At private two-year colleges, tuition has risen about 11 percent, to an average of $2,486, according to the scholarship group.

The number of lower-income students has declined dramatically at private colleges, a new study shows.

The National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities reports that the number of students from families with incomes ranging from $6,000 to $24,000 has declined 39 percent during the last two years.

During the academic years 1979-80 and 1980-81, undergraduate enrollment at the private institutions rose by about 2 percent, but the proportion of undergraduates receiving financial aid dropped from 59 percent to 56 percent, according to Julianne Still Thrift, executive director of niicu.

And the demographic profile of supported students changed as well, the study found. While fewer lower-income students received aid, the number of students from higher-income families who received financial aid rose dramatically during the survey period. Among those with family incomes over $36,000, the increase was 156 percent.

The report follows a study released this spring by the admissions office of Harvard University, which found that many minority and disadvantaged students were "selecting themselves out" of the applicant pool even before learning about aid options.

The study also showed that the number of applications to Harvard from students whose parents did not attend college declined by more than a third over the last three years, from 27 percent of the total number of applications to just under 16 percent.

The niicu study also found that student self-help efforts (loans, work, student savings) have increased substantially in recent years.

Despite cutbacks in student aid, double-digit tuition increases, the declining number of college-age Americans, and the poor state of the national economy, the Education Department predicts that college enrollment will increase this fall by 1 percent, to 12.4 million. That is an increase of about 128,000 students, according to the department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Most of the additional students will enroll at community colleges. Public two-year colleges are expecting a 4-percent enrollment increase over last year, according to the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

The U.S. workforce is composed of more college graduates and fewer high-school dropouts than ever before, a study by the Labor Department shows.

"Since 1970, the proportion of college graduates in the labor force 25 to 64 years of age has increased to nearly one-fourth, while the proportion with less than four years of high school has been cut almost in half, to about one-fifth," according to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Apparently, even new engineers are suffering the results of a depressed economy. Their first-job offers dropped off this year for the first time in more than two years, according to the College Placement Council.

This year's college graduates, the council reports, received 18 percent fewer job offers than last year's, but those with degrees in petroleum engineering continued to command the highest salaries. They averaged $30,468, compared with the $15,396 average offer made to humanities graduates.

Though students have shied away from humanities courses in recent years--partly because of the widespread view that the study of philosophy and languages is not "relevant" outside the ivory tower--courses in English and American literature remain extremely popular, a new study shows.

In the fall of 1980, college students took more courses in English and American literature than all classes in physics, chemistry, earth sciences, computer science, and astronomy combined, according to a report by the American Council on Education.

Students took 11.3 million credit-hours of English and American literature compared with 10.3 million credit-hours in all of those science fields.

--Sheppard Ranbom

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