Why Go to College? Is It Worth It?

IMG_1611_PS1The Quadrangle and Memorial Church: Stanford University

Yesterday’s editorial page in our local newspaper featured an article by Richard Cohen who writes for the Washington Post newspaper. It is titled “Can’t measure worth of college in dollars.” In it, he reflects upon the benefits of his college education. After applying “his own set of metrics” to evaluating the experience, he candidly confesses that the Washington Post would likely not have hired him without a college degree but that he probably could have earned as much in the insurance business – without the education.

Most importantly, he concludes in hindsight that attending college has made him “a happier person,” and that fact is worth everything. His reflection on the lifetime benefits which college has afforded him highlights the acquaintance of “some wonderful people,” including fellow students whose greater sophistication and worldly outlooks benefitted him greatly.

Yes! When reflecting upon our personal experiences, many of us can attest to the pervasive, long-term benefits of our college years: The crystal-clear window on human nature that four years on campus with fellow students can provide, the independence that campus living fosters, and that other window-on-the-world provided by a liberal education which stresses more than just occupational preparedness.

But why not have the best of both worlds? Why not choose a college major which fires the soul – one which promises personal growth and satisfaction while simultaneously developing marketable skills? I had the great, good fortune to do precisely that. Entering college in the fall of 1958, I set sail for a career in science or engineering (ultimately engineering) because I was interested in those fields and felt I had some aptitude. The inherent cold war threat of Russia’s success with Sputnik in 1957 fueled a great need for engineers and scientists, here in the United States. The timing of the employment boom in engineering was fortuitous as was the cost of college in 1958. Sometimes, pure luck trumps even prudent planning.

 Going Into Debt…Big-Time!

Mr. Cohen points out that the average graduate, today, is saddled with $33,000 of student debt as he or she faces an uncertain job market where entry-level positions pay very little in many fields – when they exist at all! Many of these grads will never be able to pay their debt, nor to shake that debt through bankruptcy.

When I reported to the San Jose State College campus as a freshman way back in 1958, the tuition was $29.50 per semester! I boarded with three other freshman students in the home of dear old Mrs. Lucas, a widowed, seventy-one year old lady whose longtime home was several blocks from campus. Her daughter boarded several other students just down the street, and we all ate dinner together. Mrs. Lucas charged a little more than other boarding houses in the area because it was smaller and a tad nicer – a whopping $85 per month for room and board!

At San Jose State, I reveled in the wonderful instruction and the knowledge I eagerly absorbed in my calculus, engineering physics, and chemistry classes. As the only technical major in a large, two-year, class-everyday, integrated humanities program (by invitation only), I often chafed at the some of the subjects which were difficult for me. Dissecting T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland,” and reading about the Peloponnesian War in ancient times did not come easily to me, but they did open my eyes to the vast scope of liberal-arts studies. I never did understand what Eliot was saying in that poem! I will take the time someday to have my English major daughter, Ginny, explain it to me, line-by-line. She gets it, completely. She got those genes from my mother, not from me!


When I transferred to Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto for my junior year, I lived in a large student dormitory on campus which provided a still-broader vantage point on the picture-window of life and living – so many really smart people and so much going on, there! I paraphrase what Mr. Cohen says in his piece: I encountered “fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was.” Indeed, there was so much to learn and experience at Stanford – especially for someone like me, the first in both extended families ever to go to college. Today, I still reflect in wonder on the fall of 1958 and those first, uneasy evenings away from home spent at Mrs. Lucas’ boarding house in San Jose. The three other fellows – new freshmen like myself – were discussing their possible college “majors,” and I had no idea what that actually meant!

I graduated from Stanford after 4 years and one extra quarter with a degree in electrical engineering. I had a wonderful occupation and career waiting for me, and that, too, was a whole new learning curve and challenge, especially here in Silicon Valley, California where the professional competition and the pace are intense.

Money and career aside, I can identify completely with Mr. Cohen and his Washington Post article: The things that matter most in the end are the experiences garnered during four years on a college campus and the memories and lessons which derive from them. Those of us in my generation often comment among each other how fortunate we were to come-of-age during the golden age of higher education in the United States of America. The total tuition for four years at Stanford then was $4,000. When I left there, I had a student loan debt of $1000 which I was able to pay off quickly by living with my parents for a year while working at my first job in engineering. Today, a Stanford Bachelor’s degree costs $180,000 in tuition, alone. This is in line with most similar, private universities and not that much higher than many top-tier public schools.  Granted, substantial aid packages are very prevalent today, but with an average student loan debt of $33,000 and employment prospects fair to terrible depending on one’s field, the situation is dire for today’s youth who wish the full college experience. For many, the experience of which we speak is on its way to becoming a dinosaur – rarely seen anymore. The trend-line of today’s reality dictates a work/study approach to life and learning whereby a job and part-time schooling coexist. It suddenly strikes me that the situation is precisely what many of our parents faced during the more austere periods following the depression and during the war years as they struggled to get ahead. Are we coming full circle in America’s middle class?

My advice to high school students: First, identify your passion in life, and pursue it. Never neglect ultimate financial security and the importance of having some money to work with, but your engine will be fueled through all your years by the satisfaction derived from your life’s work and experiences, not by an excess of disposable money.

The attitude with which one approaches life and work can completely color the whole reality. What at first appears ugly and unappealing, like being in a low-paying sales position and dealing with the public can be transformed by viewing such a job as a challenge and an opportunity to brighten people’s life each day by exhibiting enthusiasm and competence in the process of doing your work. This is, in essence, taking pride in your professionalism, no matter what the job description – and that is a good thing. As for today’s high price of college: My advice to youngsters is to NEVER immerse yourself in a level of debt that you will be unable to pay back. No “campus experience” will prove worth the personal travail of unmanageable, lifelong debt. It is far better to work and go to school part-time to acquire a profession which will inspire you to excel and to forego the “complete campus experience,” as fulfilling as that may be. A new trend in the form of on-line college courses is just around the corner whereby college-level courses can be viewed and even taken for credit from the comfort and convenience of the home. Many of the top universities in the country are evaluating the prospects of such a game-changing opportunity for those who cannot afford today’s cost of a four-year “campus experience.”

The only thing which is permanent in this life is…change. That is especially true of education and the dissemination of information and knowledge. While acknowledging that fact, I nevertheless thank my parents, San Jose State College, Stanford University, and my lucky stars for every single day of what I had the great good fortune to experience. I know exactly what Richard Cohen was talking about in his column.

For more on colleges and choosing the right one, see Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student, Jan. 26, 2014 in my blog archives.

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student

College Mugs_1

This morning at breakfast, my wife called my attention to a recent article in the Huffington Post about colleges and universities. I read it with particular interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it its message touches two members of my “family circle.” The article champions the importance of small liberal arts colleges within the larger realm of higher education. The article’s theme resonates with our family experience many years ago when we helped our younger daughter, Ginny, choose a college/university to attend. The author of the Huffington Post article, whose younger daughter currently attends Pomona College, in Southern California, extols the close faculty/student ties that exist in small, liberal arts colleges by elaborating on one of his daughter’s professors and that educator’s dedication to learning. He relates meeting the professor by chance during a family stroll around the campus and being impressed by the fact that the professor actually recognized his daughter by name and clearly was “invested fully in her learning.”

That un-named professor happens to be my wife’s youngest brother, a history professor at Pomona College – Ginny’s uncle!

The first stage of our college-searching years was easy. Our older daughter, Amy, had her eyes set on my wife’s alma-mater, what is now part of the California State University system and known as “Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.” Given her fine high school record, she was accepted for admission and had a great four-year experience there. She has been an elementary schoolteacher for many years, now. Cal Poly was the perfect school for her as it was for my wife, years earlier.

Ginny Stanford_1PS

Vising Stanford University with Ginny and Amy in 1991

Ginny, a top-tier student with an affinity for and a superb ability with English and matters literary, posed a more interesting dilemma. She easily won acceptance at most of the schools to which she applied, and therein was the “problem.”

Her two finalists of choice were as distinctively different as schools could be. We were thrilled when she received her notice of acceptance to Stanford University where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have had a long relationship with Stanford over many years, and I love and deeply respect the school – so I was personally very excited about my daughter’s accomplishment. A letter of acceptance to Stanford is highly-coveted these days. Her other choice after the winnowing process was complete, was the very same Pomona College mentioned in the Huffington Post article.

Pomona College is located in Claremont, California – a beautiful haven of a “small” college town in Southern California and away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Spending time in Claremont makes one oblivious to the noise and confusion of the nearby metropolis – a very good thing! The campus is spacious and beautiful, artfully combining newer facilities with many picturesque, ivy-covered buildings. All student facilities are first-rate thanks to Pomona’s very large endowment.

Pomona College is a small, private, liberal arts school with a sterling national reputation within academic circles; that said, it is not so well known by the public-at-large as is Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. Pomona annually ranks in the top-tier of national liberal arts schools and, together with a nearby group of four other diverse, small colleges, they constitute a group known collectively as the “Claremont Colleges.” While the admission percentages at Stanford are every bit as daunting as those at the vaunted “Ivy League” schools, Pomona’s admission standards are just as demanding, and the total cost of a year away at school was, and is, in the same rarified atmosphere as Stanford’s and the Ivies’ – so the looming cost to mom and dad was not a consideration in our daughter’s final decision. We had always told Ginny, “We will find a way to pay for whatever school you are able to attend.” Our daughter did her part, and we were ready to do ours.

There was that ONE other factor which influenced our decision, and that was Ginny’s uncle on the Pomona faculty. To make the story even more interesting, he received his entire university education, through a doctorate, at …Stanford University! Upon receiving his doctorate, he landed at Pomona College. It was through him and the family of a neighbor-girl who was enrolled there that we first came to know and appreciate the sterling academic reputation of Pomona College. Indeed, our neighbor took us on a family tour of the campus a year or two prior to Ginny’s senior year of high school and heavily praised the school and its academics. It is important to note that merely being a small, liberal arts college does not guarantee a fine educational experience. There are many private schools in that category that are expensive and mediocre – buyer beware! One other comment: Needless to say, Ginny’s uncle had no influence on her actual acceptance to the school! It doesn’t work that way; besides, Ginny needed no help.

We all agonized over the pending decision. It was always our daughter’s decision to make, but she was confused and wanted our advice. How could one possibly turn down Stanford? On the one hand, I was moved by my loyalty to and respect for Stanford University and the experience it provided me, the first in my entire extended family ever to attend college. On the other hand, Ginny was going to major in English with a heavy emphasis on literature and creative writing, whereas I studied electrical engineering. There is a huge difference – more significant than one might imagine. Engineering can be learned in the lecture halls and from textbooks – it is a science. Creative writing and literary appreciation, like all the arts, demands up-close-and-personal nurturing from mature minds, well-versed in the field – professors, in other words. Frequent, casual, in-depth conversations over coffee or tea with faculty members are an essential part of a strong liberal arts education, and, generally, not a reality in large universities. I could readily see that – we all could after a while.

In the final analysis, our daughter’s decision and our recommendation came down to that very issue, namely, that a small liberal arts college like Pomona offers students in the arts a first-name relationship with the faculty in addition to hands-on instruction and guidance – so important in the arts. She chose Pomona College with our full blessing and has never regretted her decision.

Ginny Pomona_1PS

Ginny and Me During Freshman Orientation, 1991

Our daughter, as usual, made the most of her opportunities during her four years at Pomona College. She became close friends with numerous senior faculty members who taught her classes, who really knew Ginny as a person, and who personally graded her papers and essays; that rarely happens in the larger universities where professors deliver the large class lectures, but graduate teaching assistants handle the smaller section-discussions (the great learning opportunity) and the arduous task of grading student essays and papers. During her four years at Pomona, Ginny had the pleasure of taking two classes from her uncle in the history department, and she took advantage of the college’s study-abroad program in her junior year to spend an academic quarter living with a French family in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. My wife and I will never forget our invitation to dinner at her host family’s fashionable Paris apartment – a wonderful evening.

Ginny Pomona Grad_1PS

I must relate one anecdote involving Stanford and Pomona. I have always enjoyed big-time college football…when played by true student-athletes. Stanford’s approach has always been to do it “right” in that regard – which I truly respect. Some of our favorite memories as a couple and a family involve Saturday afternoon tail-gate picnics and football games at Stanford Stadium. We have seen some very big games and many great athletes in Stanford’s 80,000 seat stadium of the past – very memorable stuff! Ginny could care less about football, so Pomona’s modest athletic stature was not a problem for her at all (they are the Pomona “Sagehens”; at Stanford, the modern mascot is now the “tree” – what can one say!). I recall the one Pomona football game we attended at the cozy, bleacher-surrounded athletic field: The extra-point kicks through the goal posts in one direction inevitably landed in the adjacent college swimming pool! I loved that particular comical contrast with the football played in the 80,000 seat Stanford Stadium.

In closing, we always told our daughters that we would find a way to pay for their undergraduate educations no matter what the cost, but we made clear that they were on their own as far as graduate work was concerned. I was pleased when Ginny was admitted to Stanford’s very demanding STEP program which earns its carefully selected students a master’s degree in education after one grueling year of study and student teaching. At that point in her academic life, Stanford’s program was the perfect opportunity for her. Ginny and her husband, Scott, recently paid off her graduate student loan! Ginny has been happily teaching English for many years at a high school near Stanford which enjoys a very fine academic reputation. She has authored two books and co-authored a third.

When she is not grading high school essays or writing books, Ginny writes an outstanding and entertaining public blog which can be found at http://randomactsofmomness.com and which amply reflects her real job – partner to her husband in raising two young boys. Her blog also reflects, through her writing, the very fine education she received at Pomona College – and Stanford, too. Take a look at her blog, and you will see what I mean!