Somewhere around 1973 my father asked my brother and I what we planned on doing for a living when we finished college.
We were both halfway through Salem State and it was the counter-culture era. We were filled with idealism and thoughts of how we were going to change the world. But the truth is that neither of us had a clue about what we were going to do for a living.
Even though we had both worked part-time jobs since we were in our early teens it was not clear to either of us that we were actually capable of making a living, as in a real career.
My dad, who’d already been a gunner on a Navy delivery ship making supply runs from Antwerp to Murmansk when he was 19, and was married by the time he was 23, didn’t really get us.
My brother may remember it differently but my recollection is that our father, who had the frightening responsibility of eight children, knew that making a good living was hard. And he was practical about it. And knew that you needed to have some skills, which at the time neither my brother nor I had.
By the time I was a junior, I thought, a bit disappointingly, that I was probably headed toward being a teacher, maybe a lawyer or a college professor if I put my mind to it. But I didn’t want to be pinned down. To annoy my father, I told him I wanted to be a poet. Definitely too many English literature classes at Salem State.
Exasperated, my dad then pressed my geography major brother, who finally blurted out that he wanted to be a farmer. Remember, it was 1973 and we were all going back to nature.
At some point, I remember my father looking at my mother and saying that he must have done something wrong.
Anyway, it’s near 45 years later and I did not become a poet and my brother did not become a farmer. But we both had long professional careers suited to our personalities and talents — myself as a journalist and my brother as a manager.
The thing was that in 1973, Salem State cost about $600 a semester and you could afford to think of doing crazy things like being a poet or a farmer while you were getting an education in the “liberal arts.” Although the truth is that had I gone to Boston College or Holy Cross — where my parents wanted me to go — I probably still would have majored in English even though it would have cost them a fortune even back then.
Anyway, I thought of that $600 a semester Salem State tuition this week when Robert Johnson, the new chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, was in to our editorial board to talk about his plans to make UMass Dartmouth a nationally-recognized research university.
That’s been the plan for a while now for the five-campus UMass system and it makes sense in our era of high technology and jobs that depend on advanced education and cyber-skills.
It’s a plan with all the logic in the world but I still couldn’t help wondering how it was going to make UMD affordable for middle-class kids, given the hyper-escalating costs of higher education, even public higher education.
The UMass system has had tuition increases in each of the last three years.
The federal College Navigator service costs out the average net price for a year at UMass Dartmouth at $16,898, up by more than $2,000 just in the last two years. That’s after you subtract the financial aid that an average family would receive. The full-boat cost is $28,430 a year for a boarding student.
Johnson was talking about the necessity of educating UMD students to do research for jobs that don’t even exist yet (so rapidly is the job market changing). But I couldn’t help thinking about how middle-class parents could ever pay for any of it, even with the financial aid.
I asked the new chancellor if he knew of a university that had achieved nationally-recognized research status and was still affordable for working class students. At first, he said no but later said Arizona State University.
From what I could tell online, Arizona State is indeed a quality research university but it is about the same price as UMass Dartmouth: $26,263 at its Tempe campus for the full boat and an average of $13,007 net cost after financial aid.
But where ASU does better than UMD is in average costs for the kid from the working-class family with an income of between $30,000 and $48,000. For that kid, it costs $8,302 after financial aid at Arizona State but $13,747 at UMass Dartmouth. Our legislators or someone in the UMass system could look into that.
Of course, whether you’re talking about $8,000 or almost $14,000 a year, it’s still a lot of money, and particularly if you have a kid who is not succeeding in math or the sciences. Majoring in English in this day and age is going to leave that middle- or working-class kid with a debt there’s a good chance he or she will never pay off.
So Johnson’s task is to set UMass Dartmouth on the road to being a Tier 1 research university in which the vast majority of its costs are paid by money it either charges, earns or makes deals for from the private sector. And he seems like the kind of savvy, goal-oriented guy who has a good chance of succeeding.
He pointed out that the majority of college debt is accrued by either undergraduates at for-profit universities or graduate students. But there’s still an awful lot of kids who have come out of our state universities with a tab they’re going to have a hard time paying.
It would be good if someone in the state and university system gives some thought to them.
Not everyone is going to be a software engineer or a hedge-fund manager.
Someone has to speak for the temporary poets and farmers.