A Century Long Experiment in Higher Education

Shirley and Gerry

Shirley and Gerry

My old friends Shirley and Gerry (now, sadly passed) went to the same university that I did, some decades before me. I was informed that right after World War II, Rutgers was a low budget collection of make shift buildings scattered around various parts of New Jersey. Classes were held in an old razor blade factory, a defunct brewery, and disused stables. The professors were top notch, but the facilities were bare bones. Most students lived at home and commuted to school by public transit. The few men who lived on campus occupied former military barracks. Young women of good reputation didn’t live alone in those days.

Gerry paid for his tuition each year by working as a busboy at a resort in the nearby Pocono Mountains during the summers. Two months of low wage work paid for a year of college expenses. Think about that… Shirley’s parents saved and paid for her schooling largely in the hope that she would marry well. Gerry went on to become a lawyer so the plan worked.

By the time I got to Rutgers the university had already built all sorts of extravagant facilities. In 1994, the new 41,500 seat football stadium had gone up for a mere $28 million. In 2009 it was expanded to 52,400 seats for $102 million. (That’s $10,300 per additional seat.) The university floated bonds to finance these projects. That’s $130 million of debt that needs to be paid back with interest. And that’s not including the $2.2 million salary for the head football coach. The same financial trajectory was followed for new dormitories and other buildings.

Rutgers Football Stadium (Photo from Wikipedia)

Rutgers Football Stadium (Photo from Wikipedia)

In-state tuition at Rutgers in 2016 is $14,131 per year. Room and board is $12,054. Books are $1,350. And the university estimates an extra $3,751 for additional expenses. That’s a total of $31,286 per year. Coincidentally Rutgers has the highest student loan debt load of any state school in the country. 

The minimum wage in New Jersey is currently $8.38. Let’s take $31,286 per year and divide it by $8.38 per hour. My old friend Gerry would have needed to work for over twenty three months of forty hour weeks with no time off (before taxes) to earn enough to pay for a year at Rutgers if he tried to recreate his college budget today. The difference between the financial reality of 1950 and the present is simple. Discretionary spending and debt have exploded. None of this has anything to do with education. None of it.

A century ago engineer Lucien Nunn earned a huge fortune by devising a method of delivering electricity to the remote mines of Colorado. But in order to keep his business viable he needed young engineers to carry out the work. Unfortunately the graduates of the best eastern universities weren’t suited for life on the western frontier. Consequently, in 1917 he created the Telluride Association. Scholarships for engineering students were offered in conjunction with Cornell University in upstate New York. He also endowed a parallel tuition-free institution on the California/Nevada border.

Deep Springs is a remote desert college that takes scholarship recipients and toughens them up for two years by having them plow fields, herd cattle, ride horses, raise and butcher hogs, cook, repair the generator, and otherwise run the farm. The school maintains a policy of self reliance, self governance, and self imposed isolation during the academic year. Only twelve or fifteen students attend per year. Instructors from a range of well regarded institutions rotate in for a semester or two and teach the liberal arts of literature, writing, critical thought, and so on.

There is no stadium. No elaborate library beyond what might fit in an ordinary home collection of well chosen volumes. No fitness center. No clock tower. The emphasis is entirely on reading classic texts and refining the intellect through reasoned debate and writing. Then students head back to Cornell to complete their education in the traditional manner. This highly respected century-old model demonstrates that it’s possible for a quality education to occur in a plain vanilla environment without a lot of bells and whistles.

Sure, you need some million dollar equipment to study molecular biology. But English? Law? History? This is an extreme example, but there’s just no reason why a four year college degree should cost anything like what it does. As a culture we need to get our expectations in line with what is actually attainable on a reasonable budget.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo unless otherwise noted)

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