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Web savvy draws big for college

Ornis Malconsultant with VTekh working on-site for his client Guaranteed Rate which has been called Google mortgage-originator industry. Thursday July

Ornis Mala, a consultant with VTekh, working on-site for his client, Guaranteed Rate, which has been called the Google of the mortgage-originator industry. Thursday, July 26, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: September 26, 2012 6:02AM

Ornis Mala honed his computer skills developing databases, specialty apps and software systems at Lake Forest College, a liberal-arts school whose digital media design studies, specialized website portals and Loop-residency internship program reflect the changing needs of today’s workforce.

Mala, 23, a native of Kosovo in southeastern Europe, found Lake Forest College by searching the web with help from his high-school guidance counselor.

“I looked at professors’ websites and profiles, the student groups’ online postings and the college ‘news’ section of the website,” said Mala, who graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor of arts in computer science and economics.

He got a job one week after graduation as a consultant and project manager at Vtekh, an IT consulting firm. He is now software manager at the Federal Savings Bank.

Last year, 40 percent of Lake Forest College’s applicants had no contact other than clicking on the website — no visits, no phone calls, no college fair and no printed materials — before deciding to attend the school. The trend first popped up in a 2010 Hobsons Report survey showing potential students relied on a campus visit and the college website, in that order, to decide where to apply for college.

Lake Forest hires high-school juniors and seniors in the summer to troll the college website and offer ideas.

After a prospective student fills out an online form, the site pushes out tailored information that corresponds with the student’s intended major and minor, hobbies and other interests.

And the college uses a smartphone app available in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese to give students a virtual campus tour.

“Kids are using their smartphones and texting rather than using email,” said Admissions Director Bill Motzer. “We’ve refocused how we reach students, constantly updating the website and no longer printing more expensive ‘viewbooks.’

It’s a team effort. While the college offers technology-influenced degrees, campus diversity and internship programs that employers want, professors network with educators in China, Eastern Europe and other emerging nations whose students may more freely study abroad.

The result? The 1,600-student, four-year college has introduced finance as a major; boosted the popularity of digital medial design as a minor; and doubled the number of students attending from outside of the United States in the past 10 years, boosting the international presence to 15 percent of the student body. The college, which has enjoyed a 33 percent jump in enrollment in the past decade, attracts students from 78 countries and 47 states.

Students may major in subjects not usually associated with a liberal-arts education, including accelerated programs that save a full year’s tuition.

Students can earn a B.A. and a graduate degree in pharmacy, law or international studies, or complete a three-year B.A. in communications or philosophy.

And the Loop internship residency — 35 students take up the entire fourth floor of an international youth hostel at 24 E. Congress Parkway — is aimed at letting students stay in a part of the Loop crowded with young tech workers and college kids from Columbia, DePaul, Roosevelt, the Art Institute of Chicago and others who live and study there.

“This gives us a presence in the city that lets students be more engaged,” especially as companies offer networking, cultural and other programs after hours, Motzer said.

Students also work on campus on tech projects.

Mala, the computer-science major, interned at a software solutions company and at the college’s Brown Technology Resource Center, developing a database, a software program and apps for the college’s science department and for online student voting.

Mala credits the deep relationships and high-level study of a small college, as well as support from computer science teachers Craig Knuckles and Joe Hummel, with pushing him to take on so many computer projects while he was in school.

Though Lake Forest has seen the percentage of students who qualify for Pell Grants — the federal grant for low-income students — jump to 33 percent from 25 percent four years ago— the school still offers full-tuition scholarships each year to as many as 25 qualifying poverty-level Chicago Public School students.

For 80 percent of on-campus students, the average amount of financial aid is $35,000 of the $47,000 yearly tuition. Of the $35,000, the average loan is $5,000, with the remainder in grants and scholarships.

As colleges and universities innovate, so do employers trying to attract quality employees —even if that means losing them to higher-paying jobs. has just introduced a tuition-reimbursement program for full-time hourly employees who work at its warehouses and fulfillment centers — but only if the workers choose studies in high-paying and in-demand careers such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design professionals, medical laboratory science and machine tool technology.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos called the program “an experiment” and said he realizes that the seasonal work the company offers is likely a stepping-stone for employment elsewhere. But the program also may allow Amazon to employ longer-term, more satisfied employees, Bezos said.

Economics professor Enrico Moretti, author of “The New Geography of Jobs,” said a growing number of private colleges are changing their curricula to educate students in jobs that are fast-growing, such as graphics and Internet design.

“There will always be liberal arts education and people who want to study and teach history and philosophy,” he said. “But colleges are reacting to a changed labor market.”

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