College Edjumication

Well, following upon da Blogfadda’s tireless coverage of the various implications of the currently about-to-implode higher education bubble, I suppose that I might weigh in on the various merits/demerits of the so-called bubble, and the efficacy of even bothering to attend an institution of so-called higher education, with respect to my current career as a producer of readable genre fiction – which is not as highly-paid as the casual reader is likely to expect, but still  . . .  that career is underwritten by a pension earned for military service. It’s not the generous pension that I might have earned as a public servant in California as a prison guard or lifeguard, or municipal employee in certain urban sinks  . . .  but it suffices to pay the mortgage and a little over, since I had the good sense to retire and buy a residence in Texas, fifteen years ago. So, anyway – college education, value of, personal development  . . .  et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.Personally, I felt that I got  great value out of my college education, and my parents – being the first in their families to achieve degrees – were all about the four of us being college attendees also.  Dad went all the way to a Masters and almost a PhD, courtesy of his own industry and the GI Bill. (He was pretty pissed about missing being awarded the PhD, I tell ya – he took out his frustrations building an ironwork chandelier, exactingly designed to hold the thick beeswax candles that my Great-aunt Nan scored though being a stalwart member of the altar guild at some Episcopal establishment that rewarded her with those.) Well, anyway, the ‘rents were pretty well hipped on the values of higher education,  and three of the four of us kids eventually did so – but in the meantime, at what expense? And for what payback? It was drilled into us; our college education would be self-paid, although Mom was an uber-mom, in comparison to the mothers of our peers, growing up where we did, and at the time that we did. Which was a working-class, blue-collar striving suburb; I don’t think Mom and Dad ever entertained fantasies of red-brick Ivies for us, or even their own alma mater, Occidental College. Which was just as well – saved wear and tear on the emotions, ambitions and pocketbook. Community college for lower division, state Uni for upper, and if you can figure out how to do that and not live at home – good for you, kid!

This meant for me that I lived at home for all four years of college. I attended a local community college for two of those years (Glendale Community College, for those who give a rodent’s patoot about these things) – carefully selecting every course taken for it’s transferability to a state university – and then went to California State University Northridge for upper division. I graduated from that august establishment with a bachelor in English, discovering only upon Graduation Day that all the good-looking and personable guys were in the Engineering division. As I had gone to college to procure a B. of A. and not my Mrs.; this discovery was only a matter of academic and aesthetic interest to myself and the girl in line next to me, standing in our cheap polyester robes rented from whatever concession that held the rights for that graduation year. I went on and enlisted in the Air Force – which had been my intention for much of the time that I had spent marooned in academia. I did not do ROTC, by the way – that was not offered at Cal State Northridge. All they had was a program at another Cal State school that I couldn’t get to easily as a commuter student.

So – four years at various community and state institutions of higher learning, paying for my textbooks, tuition and the gas to get to classes: how did I pay for all of this? I made dolls. I made twelfth-scale dolls, and sometimes client-commissioned dolls and doll-clothes, and sold them on consignment or direct sales through a miniature shop in a nearby town. I made $25 a week, week in and week out – that’s about five dolls, with hand-sewn clothes, and composition heads, hands and feet of soda-cornstarch clay, and bodies made of cloth-wrapped wire, so that they were easily pose-able. I didn’t then or ever, claim to be the best 12th-scale doll artist in the world, but I was the only one in that particular field at that particular time, working through that particular commercial outlet. And it did add up, not having any big expenses, other than tuition, textbooks and gas. Or at least it didn’t in the early 1970s. So I paid for all of my college education, and I came out with about $1,500 left over. I went to England on it, and spent the whole summer staying in Youth Hostels and traveling on Brit-Rail and various public transportations.

Educated, with a relatively useless degree in English Lit? Such were the circumstances that I felt then and ever since – that I was perfectly well educated, from this experience and from a mad impulse to read everything I could get my hands on, with regard to subjects which attracted my butterfly-impulsive interest. In the early 1970s in California, community colleges and state schools still offered an adequate and intellectually challenging education, even in the softer degree programs like – umm, English. A degree in it was a good starting point for quite a lot of interesting careers, even though Cal State Northridge didn’t and doesn’t have any cachet at all in the grand educational scheme of things. But I didn’t bankrupt myself retroactively – or my family in procuring a degree from it.

And as a family, we also spared ourselves that desperate pursuit of red-brick-ivy-covered status-education competition. Really, Mom and Dad were totally realistic about all that, and the prospects that we would all have. For myself, I didn’t want to go on and get a higher degree; I wanted to be a writer, and I sensed even then – that the best and most efficient way to do that was to go ahead and have a life, an interesting life, full of interesting and varied people. I’ve been knocking around the world ever since, among all sorts of people. Some of them don’t have anything beyond high school, and some of them do – and from places that are much higher thought of than Cal State Northridge. Weird thing? I’ve never felt the least bit at a disadvantage, intellectually. I’ve never been able to decide if it was the degree itself – which guaranteed to the observer that I was basically literate-and-a-bit for the standards of the time – or just the experience of life in the military which would account for that confidence. Just one of those things, I expect – being realistic about the education I got from one or the other – and not being in debt from the experience. I’m in debt for certain things – but not for my higher education.

12 thoughts on “College Edjumication”

  1. I think what “higher education” is missing Sgt – is a foot on the ground of the reality of the everyday world. And the costs have gone up exponentially – far higher than inflation or other industries.

    And I would like to hear from others on “why” the costs have gone up so much. (the short economic answer I think is “because they can raise them and people will pay”.

    Kudos to you for putting yourself through college. I suspect we are about the same age; my Odyssey began when I graduated from high school and my hard-working parents felt that I should attend a small (400 student) private school (Menlo College) on the SF Peninsula. It was, and is, just a few miles down the road from Stanford and was referred as “the back door to Stanford”.

    Although going to Stanford was not my ulterior motive in going to Menlo.

    At Menlo the courses were pretty much the same as any 1st 2 years of undergrad, world history, a language , a science…

    I can’t say that my education there was deficient but in hindsight I think your idea of going to a community college was certainly smarter financially, particularly since you had the responsibility of putting yourself through. These days though in California I am not sure the community colleges are the places there were when you attended. I am sure the professor quality was better at Menlo and because of overcrowding there is a frustrating wait for a lot of required classes.

    While at Menlo I had to think about where to attend the last 2 years and picked the University of Virginia. At the time back in Charlottesville I was somewhat of an oddity (well, that subject is ongoing) but I was one of 8 Californians at “Mr Jefferson’s school”. Today of course there is a huge influx of students from outside VA and in going to my 20 year reunion in 1992 remarked to a student welcoming me “The longer I have stayed out the smarter people think I am” – meaning of course their entrance requirements have gone up.

    But I was proud to have attended UVA – as they, along with the 4 military academies, had (have) a strict honor code against cheating and lying.

    Every year there are a few kicked out from everything to cheating on tests (at the front of each blue book you wrote ‘On my honor as a student I have neither given nor received information on this exam” – to writing a bad check.

    But – my major – when I arrived one summer in 1970 my “counselor” told me I had to tell him what my major was to be so in looking at the long list I picked “Government and Foreign Affairs” – sounded interesting although the thought of how this would help me in my adult life was not even considered.

    And UVA is noted for this field.

    Well, the next 2 years I couldn’t understand why I was working my tail off with hardly any time for an elective – turns out I learn at the end of the trip that I had picked 2 majors – Government – and Foreign Affairs.

    Well, a few months out and I became the second to the last group in the US to have ever been drafted – being drafted in Sep 1972.

    It is a date that brought me a bit of melancholy a few weeks ago as I read that the last soldier in the Army who was drafted – in Sep 1972 – my group – became in 40 years a Command Sgt Major – and just retired.

    So the Army has no draftees now.

    In the Army I had taken an aptitude test – I was told that I would be the “ideal Air Force Officer” (who is that? Curtis LeMay? Pee Wee Herman?)

    I told them I wanted to be a photographer in Japan and I ended up, through a bureaucratic quirk of fate, being an air defense radar operator in Germany.

    I suppose I could ramble on but I will say that the only skill I acquired that has helped me in my work life was a computer skill I picked up in San Diego in 1981 over 9 months – with help from the GI Bill – I got a BSCS in Computer Science and am still programming…

    One of my life’s regrets (“I have a few” (F. Sinatra) – was not becoming an officer – the Army asked me 3 times but I had a hard head. OTOH had I been LT I doubt that I could have traveled all over Europe during those days so perhaps it is a wash…

    As far as the value of education (trying for a segue to actually the focus of your post!) it still has to be up to the students – I do not understand one of the blogger’s anger here at feeling “cheated” for something one’s parents didn’t say – it is still a world out there which we all have equal opportunities to observe; some see the needs clearer than others (apparently you and I were a bit myopic in the “seeing what we should learn” dept) – but we are all captains of our own vessels.

  2. Well, here is another story of college education. I am convinced that tuition inflation is due to student loans and the insanity that took over about 20 years ago. I grew up in Chicago and went to St Leo High at 79th and Halsted. In my junior year, we were marched to the study hall, a large class room with theater seating. We were told we were going to take a test. It was the SAT, I later learned. To this day, I don’t know my score. About six months later, I received notice that I was a finalist for the National Merit Scholarship, new that year. What I didn’t know until my mother told me years later was that my father received a packet of disclosure forms to determine financial need. The scholarship was supposed to be merit only but financial need was a factor.

    My father had explained to me a few months before that “I should get this idea of college out of my head.” He wanted me to be a golf pro. Naturally he threw the financial forms away.

    A couple of months later, I received a letter telling me that, because I had no financial need need, I was getting a certificate of merit. So much for college. Another month or so after that, I got a letter from the USC Alumni of Chicago asking me if I was interested in USC. USC is, of course, the University of Southern California. Since I had applied to and been accepted by Cal Tech, my dorm had been assigned, I was interested. It was closer to Cal Tech than I was.

    About September 1, I arrived in Los Angeles and looked for a place to stay. It never occurred to me to contact Cal Tech and explain my predicament. I began USC about September 20 and found that the engineering school was not very good. The exception was Petroleum Engineering but that was not my interest.

    Fraternity life (I ended up moving into a fraternity house and then pledging, the reverse of the usual pattern) was more interesting and my grades suffered.

    In June, I found that I needed a B in Calculus to keep my B average and I spoke to my instructor, a little Indian professor who was hard to understand. He told me that, if I got an A on the final, I would get a B in the course. I had not been turning in homework. Come the final, I got an A then, when the grades were posted, I found that I had gotten a C in the course. I made an appointment to speak to the professor but he didn’t show up. I made another with the same result.

    A few days later, I saw him on campus walking across from me on University Avenue. I hailed him and began to cross. He looked at me and began to run the other way. I thought that chasing him was unlikely to be productive. The following year, I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company after another year of engineering classes. I had begun to think of pre-med and several of my friends were pre-meds and encouraged me.

    I started taking pre-med classes at night while I worked during the day. This was 1959 and tuition was about $500 per year. USC is a private university and UCLA would have been cheaper. The rest of the story is on my blog.

  3. Even when government intentions start out reasonable things tend to go awry. The Department of Education’s Student Loan program is a perfect example. It was started with the admirable aim of helping needy students to get an education.

    The unintended consequences are:

    • Because schools know students can always get loans they increase tuition with relative impunity
    • The cost of an education has been transferred from parents to students
    • Now more than 50% of students graduate with significant student loan debt
    • Students spend their first 10-15 working years paying off debt rather than building wealth.
    • They lose 10-15 years off compounding – think of the impact of that at retirement.

  4. I have a possibly unusual view of this problem.

    In 1956, tuition at USC, a private university, was $17 a unit. This worked out to a flat charge of about $250 per semester for more than 17 units. In 1961, the medical school tuition was $600 per year. By the time my own children were applying to USC as freshmen, in 1983, The tuition plus room and board totaled $7500 per semester. Fortunately, I was able to pay for two of them and we did not need student loans. I did draw the line at law school and they were responsible for their own law school tuition, although I helped with expenses.

    My third child chose not to attend college. The fourth went to junior (community) college and transferred to UCLA. I paid the tuition. She is now at USC on a full scholarship in a PhD program.

    My youngest is at the U of Arizona as a non-resident student, paying $25,000 per year tuition. We have owned a house in Tucson for five years but that dos not qualify. It is my opinion that she has received the worst education of the five. Fortunately, she seems to have figured out the world and is on track to make a good attempt at a career.

  5. When I went to UVa in 1970 the tuition was $800 a semester, and that was the non resident rate. Menlo, the small private college was ~ $4000/year – in 1968.

    Today I think UVA is over $30K/year. How are most parents supposed to afford that?

    I have a good friend whose daughter wanted to be a judge since she was 16 or so. I admire people like that who know what they want and focused getting it.

    She decided that Boston U was the place to go and moved there a year earlier to establish residency. She took some menial jobs as I recall. Today she is a successful attorney working in Boston.

    Would the student loans account for the total reason for this exponential price increase?

    I remember reading an article in Forbes – passed along to a reader here whose daughter was entering college – but one thing that stuck with me was a small liberal arts college in – Ohio I think – but their tuition was markedly lower that the industry average – and they were having trouble attracting applicants.

    They raised their tuition to “industry standards” and the applications started coming in.

    Of course people perceive lower prices as bad quality many times but one would think if the average student was going to go into debt for 10-15 years over getting an education that in many cases is of dubious value today, you would think people would have flocked to that lower priced school.

    Then added to all of this are the scholarships – the paying students are subsidizing the non-paying students.

    I don’t know if anything became of this but Stanford – with their huge endowment – was talking about “free” tuition for students (

    But that is one of the toughest schools to enter – even my niece, who got nearly all A’s in high school, was turned down – ended up going to Northwestern and getting nearly a 4.0 average …

    Michael – to go to Cal Tech – I am impressed!

  6. $250 in 1956=$2085 in 2011 dollars. You can do these calculations at the BLS web site.

    There has been an enormous build up of university administrators which is where quite a bit of the increase has come from.

  7. Bill, I thought, and still think that Cal Tech is the best engineering college in the world. It has maintained its standards for 60 years that I have been watching.

    It is a mystery to me why I never tried to explain my problem to them. They even sent a faculty member to Chicago to interview me.

  8. Sgt. Mom, Cal State Northridge, 3 miles to the west of where I live, has not improved in the least since you’ve been here. The buildings however are larger, shinier.
    The timing of this post is awesome since my family just returned from a visit to a small college in Montecito Ca. Stunningly beautiful campus with an ocean view. Not to mention brand new facilities and an impeccably credentialed staff with great kids. But is the MSRP of $49,000 worth it???

    Why doesn’t the left argue for price controls in academia?

  9. Thanks, guys for the comments – I’ve been shaking my head for the last ten years or so, over the cost of higher education, and just in despair as my daughter came up to the age to attend college. Generally the public has been paying more and more for it, and getting less and less. Note Lex’s encounter with those poor students at the Occupy Chicago protests. They had paid through the nose for their education, were still woefully uneducated, and had no prospect of getting any kind of job at all, above retail sales and fast-food provider … and had a debt load that gave a new and bitter relevancy to the term of ‘wage slavery’!
    I think that is what most fries people – to pay a mint and get f**k-all. This is why the bubble will burst, and very soon, too, I think.
    Just for giggles, Jason and all – my semester tuition at CSUN was round and about $95, give or take, and $100-200 for textbooks, as a full-time student. My brother also went there, and he had pretty much the same, but as he was a bio major, so he had lab fees of $300-$500 for certain of his classes. IIRC most of my classes had about 20-30 students per, and just about all were taught by full professors. Most all of them were old-school, and fairly demanding, except for the kid-lit prof who was a politically correct tool, and the medieval history prof who was the single most tedius human being I hever had to listen to for hours on end. I honestly think I got a pretty good education out of it all, just on the personal fullfillment level – but I never for a moment thought that I would be instantly qualified for a high-salaried and prestigious position anywhere on account of it.

  10. Sgt – I think that is a difference between so many students today and then – students today – because of the cost no doubt – are expecting a near term payout for all their effort and expense.

    And for the most part the students aren’t learning skills that employers are looking for.

    Your stories of the professors reminded me of a time in the last 15 years I enrolled in one of our junior colleges to learn systems design.

    As far as computers are concerned this is the discipline that – like architecture for buildings, allows one to design the framework for an applications that will run for years (if done right)

    Anyway the “professor” teaching it was some guy who hadn’t been in the industry for easily 35 years and if that weren’t enough, had a voice that was a monotone and droned on….and on.

    It was a matter of time before you dozed off – a quick look around would reveal half the class in this state of hibernation.
    He reminded me of this sgt I knew in the Army that we knew as – Sgt Somonex.

  11. Since it looks like you need some more modern anecdotes: I entered Case Western Reserve University (CWRU or Case for short, depending on what the administration has rebranded or unbranded to lately) in 2002. It’s a smallish (less than 4000 undergrad, maybe double that of grads) private school in Cleveland, formed of the merger of Case Institute of Tech and Western Reserve U in 1967. The focus is on engineering – or at least was; as is usually the case, the humanities and social sciences have been making heavy inroads.

    Due to my ACT test scores, I had a half ride, because I was an idiot and didn’t retake and retake until I had a score at a full ride level. I am fortunate in that my grandfather told all of his grandkids that we shouldn’t think about the money, but go to the best school we could get into, and he’d backstop us. He was a depression kid who went to Madison in 1929… (Mech E) and ended up with a bunch of debt. This was something he stated he wanted none of his kids or grandkids to have. So I got a half ride – he picked up the other half, the amount of which I remember. He wrote a check for half of 4 years, which was 50K. This means that when I came in, it was 25K a year.

    When I left in 2007, it was 35K a year. Happily, the half ride and the amount he prepaid counted as percentages, so I only had to cover some miscellaneous fees and books.

    I look at their site today: $54,585 annual.

    Say that my grandfather had not backstopped me. I would have graduated with 50-70K in debt. If I make the average engineers salaray of 60K a year, that gives me approx 40K after tax, right? Take 15K in annual living expenses (no house, no car, no girlfriend or kids).. that gives me 25K to put toward paying the debt each year – without making any savings. Assuming 5% interest rate on the loan (starting at the date of graduation), I could pay off the loan in 3-4 years, if I paid all 25K a year towards it. So at the end, I would have no money in the bank, but be debt free when I am 26, with 4 years of work experience.

    Is it worth it? It’s hard to say. Would a 2-year tech school graduate be ahead of me financially at this point? With certitude. Is the potential salary of a 4-year-degree larger than that of a 2-year-degree? Obviously. How long it takes for a 4-year to beat a 2-year.. depends on the amount saved respectively. You can play with the amounts respectively if you like, but it hardly matters.

    Today, if I had been in the same situation (assuming no grandfather), my debt at the end would be more like 100-120K. Interestingly, it only takes about 5-6 years to pay off (at 5%, paying 2000 a month). Now I would be 28 instead.

    But who does this kind of analysis for high schoolers? No one I know.

  12. These are all good stories. In 1995, I had retired after back surgery and spent a year at Dartmouth. I got a Masters Degree in something called outcomes research, a medical field that tried to use objective data to measure medical quality. It was a good time but my idea of having a second career was a dream. A friend who had started a PPO in Orange County told me I was “two years too soon.” Nobody in managed care was interested in quality. A couple of years later, I went out to lunch with him and he said I was “still two years too soon.”

    I interviewed a few times, once in Chicago with the Joint Commission of Accreditation of Hospitals but there did not seem to be much interest in what I wanted to do. Everyone is convinced that higher quality is more expensive although there is very little evidence for this. More does not always mean better. It’s a losing proposition and a very good reason to avoid government medicine. Anthony Daniels has a good piece on the NHS in the City Journal. It explains that, as budgets become unsustainable, salaries in the NHS go up and care goes down It is no wonder that middle class British retirees, like Daniels himself, seek care in France where fee for service guarantees decent care.

Comments are closed.