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The value of public universities

December 26, 2011 | 5 Comments


You've expounded on the value of public universities, how democratic they are and how they facilitate the bootstrap spirit of our nation. I live in the busy Northeast Corridor, and I'm now considering applying to one of the great American public universities.

But how do I justify this to all the Ivy League punks in this world? There seems to be a grain of truth that Ivy graduates run the country, and fill the most powerful roles in our society. I can hear their sneers, years in advance.

Concerned Applicant


I'm a romantic idealist when it comes to education and I think college is supposed to be an enormous life-altering experience, not simply vocational training. It was enormous for me. At the private schools I've visited in the past few months, St. Olaf and Macalester and Drake, it was striking (to me) how cheerful and eager and enthusiastic the students were, and maybe that's an advantage of Ivy and other private schools, that they weed out the indifferent. On the other hand, when I've been at Harvard and Yale and Princeton, I only felt very lucky to have gone to the University of Minnesota. It was a huge land-grant university when I landed there in the fall of 1960, but I was terribly lucky to enroll in three terrific classes at the get-go, Latin Reading with Maggie Forbes, Composition: The Essay with Richard Cody, and American Politics with Asher Christiansen, three teachers still vivid to me all these years later. And I, who had vague literary ambitions, fell in right away with others who had big literary ambitions. And I went to work at the student radio station. So, within a few months, my life got set on its course, which is a sort of miracle. I came from a small town and the U of M was a bustling metropolis with large contingents of African, Indian, and Asian students and ambitious cultural programs. In my freshmen year, I became good friends with Barry Halper and Larry Leventhal and got to see Andres Segovia and the Royal Danish Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell and see a couple Shakespeare plays and see Robert Frost read, one amazement after another. I was at the U because I had no money and my high-school record was unimpressive and what I got from the U was a chance at a large life. And that's why I believe in public higher education.

But of course things have changed in fifty years. Tuition has risen ---- obscenely, I think ----- and commercial pop culture is more pervasive, which tends to dumb down the environment, and political correctness has eroded the classic curriculum, and the economy has made students more fearful and cautious than I remember being. But there's still an education out there for you, young man, and you don't need to justify your choice to anyone. Take your shot and make the most of your opportunities, whether you go to Harvard or Hermantown J.C. And have a big time.


My failure at a public college (not officially a university until some years after I graduated) was to miss the daily opportunity to become educated. I took the required courses and missed all the Life Stuff that was all around me. I should have delayed college until I had sufficiently matured - unfortunately I was in my early 50s then.

Seek out learning whether or not it is in "your major" or related to how you hope to make a living. The meat and matter of living really isn't in your career.

I agree. I had 36 in my graduating class and went to a state land grand university of 27,000 students. I was exposed to plays, music people from may cultures - OSU was training persons to establish a similar university in Pakistan. Before I graduated I work at a girls camp in Michigan and spent a semester at a Human Development Institute in Detroit. If learning is your goal you can get an education wherever you are.

To Concerned:
GK is still correct, about the opportunities and power of state-sponsored colleges and universities. In fact, I'm fairly certain that, in an era of price-gouging at all levels, and at a time when for-profit and some private institutions have not only jumped on the greed bandwagon but seem to be pushing it faster, a good, really good, college education at a reasonable cost, seems to be a better deal each day.
I taught mostly high school courses, with a short stint in a private college, for 37 years, and many of my former students chose state schools, and most of those have successful lives today. Those who did not succeed could not put the blame on the institution, from what I can tell. The lack of success seems to have nothing to do with where they chose to go.
My own children went about 20 miles down the road to a wonderful four-year college, graduated with no debt, and then followed that with graduate school, pretty much, again, without added cost. One is a chief engineer for the armed services testing aircraft, and the other finished the master's at Colorado and the doctorate at Penn State, and neither started out their post-education lives saddled with enormous debt.
There is NO freedom like facing life debt-free, free to go where the best opportunity lies, not the opportunity that will help pay all those student loans. I fear that many of those who choose the "prestige" of debt servitude limit their opportunities in ways that those institutions never mention. Of course, those who are in the top income families will never know that struggle, but that has no relationship to education or daily life or anything else that uses money as its basis.
In fact, finishing your education debt-free puts you right where the extremely affluent finish, but with the added strength of a wide world-view and an ability to work with folks who may not have had everything given to them. That last group will be about 99% of the people you'll spend your working life with, so I see that as good preparation. Don't be afraid of the state school. Be afraid of STUDENT DEBT! BE VERY AFRAID!

-- Old English Teacher from Georgia

I went attended college with four elementary kids at home. I was 29 when I enrolled at the Barron County Branch of Stout State University in Wisconsin. I felt I'd died and gone to heaven. A branch campus of Stout was a long way from the Ivy League, but my classes and my instructors there and at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota enriched and improved my life beyond all measure.

ivies rule, state schools drool

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