Higher Education

May 12, 2004 news item:

WASHINGTON – At least 28 high-level federal employees have degrees from bogus colleges or unaccredited schools, only a slice of a problem that ranges from worker quality to national security, congressional investigators say. Two high-ranking Pentagon officials, Charles Abell and Patricia Walker, both list degrees from schools identified as diploma mills. Laura Callahan, deputy chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, resigned over a controversy about the doctorate she got from a bogus school.

I occasionally write “I earned a BA from the University of Washington.” The fact that I earned one is true. The fact is also true I did not receive one. The thing is, the U of W won’t give me the one I earned. I am overstating the case a bit. They would not give it to me in the 1970’s when I asked for it. They would not give it me in the 1980’s when again asked for it. Their reason was I had been admitted with a deficiency. Since I never made up the deficiency, they can’t let me have the degree. More simply, I never had the right to enter, so whatever I earned was worthless. I haven’t asked since. I think to be able to tell the story is worth more than the diploma. “What good is a diploma anyway? You have to go up into the attic anytime you want to look at it” are the comforting words given to Eddie Cantor in the movie The Kid From Spain after he has been kicked out of college. That was during the depression when men with college degrees were selling apples on the corner while trying to dodge the stock brokers jumping out of the windows above them. I have never missed my diploma but I do understand why others would lie, cheat and steal to get one. Generally, a college degree is a good thing.

I worked my way through college being a projectionist at a small movie theater. It paid minimum wage and that was enough for tuition, books, food and an apartment. It also gave me hours alone in a small room where I could read while the 35mm films were spinning through the projectors. The minimum wage was $2.65 an hour. Tuition was $144.00 a quarter. Minimum wage can’t buy a college education anymore. The minimum wage has doubled since then. Tuition has gone up ten times. I could be wrong. It could be twenty times. I don’t think the high cost of an education is the reason why the twenty eight people working for the government paid for degrees instead of earning them. I think it is because they didn’t go to school during a time when the education was the thing and what it would earn you was secondary. Have we reached a time when the mere fact that having a degree gets you a job, so why bother to learn anything?

The deficiency meant they were willing let me in, but I would have to make up the basic entrance requirement to graduate. I didn’t think much about it at the time. The requirement was to have two years of a foreign language in high school. Honestly, it wasn’t my fault I didn’t have two years of a foreign language in high school. The rural HS I attended offered foreign language classes. I was even in one at the beginning of my Junior year. I was taking German from Mr. Barker. Everything would have been fine if I hadn’t started dating Mr. Barker’s beautiful daughter. His attitude toward me after the first couple of dates was frosty. After we got more serious about each other his attitude changed to outright hatred. I really can’t remember what straw broke the camel’s back and got me thrown out of the class. I do have a detention slip he filled out that explained I was being kept after school for one hour because of “wise answers.” Whatever the reason, I was expelled from his class. It was too late to enroll in Spanish. I was out in the cold with no idea that it would be affecting me years later. Throwing me out did not stop me from dating his daughter.

I really liked college and felt lucky to be there. I had graduated in the bottom ten percent of my high school class. During my summer vacations I would see people in my hometown and they would ask what I was doing. They clearly expected me to say I was on work release or pumping gas. When I would tell them that I was attending college they would react with barely concealed amazement. They would then say “Oh, are you at the Jr. College?” When I said I was at the U of W they could not help but react with open amazement. The U of W was not a common destination from my HS. The JC or the state colleges in Cheney, Bellingham and Ellensburg were where most of my friends went. The Olympia state college (Evergreen) had just opened but only stoned-out hippies were going there. During my first three years at the UW things were great. I made yearly honors my first year. I enjoyed my classes and got good grades. I played gym rat basketball. I had a girlfriend. I had a job and was paying my way. Then the UW made me declare a major. I had put it off as long as I could. I liked being able to take any class that interested me. Among my favorites were astronomy, philosophy, ballet and tap dancing. I also took some psych classes.

I was finally forced to make a choice and became a psych major. I was also told I still had to make up the foreign language deficiency. Two quarters would do it. I decided to take French. I liked the class. At least I liked speaking it. Writing it was hard. I also thought “when would I ever write anything in French where putting the accents in the right directions would really make any difference?” It also bothered me that the class was being graded on the curve. Everyone in my class had taken two years of French in HS. How else could they have gotten into the school? Some of them were practically fluent. Almost all of them were there to add five easy credits toward graduation and pad their grade point average. After my first test came back covered with red marks where I had left out punctuation, I dropped the class. During winter quarter I enrolled in Finnish. I didn’t think there was any punctuation in Finnish. Besides, my grandma spoke Finnish and would be pleased that she talk to me after so many years. The only problem was that Finnish was not a regular class. It was study at home. I was given tapes to go along with a text book. Have you ever heard people speak Finnish? It is not a pleasant thing. I gave it an effort for a couple of weeks and gave up.

After winter quarter I decided to take the quarter off and ride freight trains around the county. I was back at school in the fall. With incompletes in the two classes my GPA had dropped a couple of notches. I was still on track to graduate with my class. I decided to give French another shot. This time I got lucky. I got the best teacher in the world. She made everyone in the class feel welcome. She made learning to speak French fun. She was less concerned with writing it. We all had to be addressed with the French pronunciation of our names. I really didn’t like being called Denny. No problem. She let me rename myself Willie. For years after that I would run into people for the class who would call me Willie. I passed the class with a B. Now all I had to do was get through one more quarter of French and be home free. Too bad I couldn’t have the same teacher for the second class.

My next teacher was an older man from Viet Nam who DIDN’T SPEAK ENGLISH AT ALL. For the rest of the students, most of whom were in there for the easy grade, it was no problem. For me it was insurmountable. I really did try. Every day I would head for the class. Every day I would walk past Suzzallo library. After a week of the class, every day I would not make, but instead go into the library and spend the hour looking at Life magazines from the 1930’s. I decided to take Spring quarter off again. I was again back at school in the fall. I took the final required classes for my Psych degree. I had enough credits to graduate. I had also heard that the requirement for two years of a foreign language had been dropped. I went to my advisor. Yes, it was true that the requirement had been dropped. No, it would not affect me at all. I would have to graduate under the terms of my original admittance.

As W. C. Fields said “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up, there’s no need to be a damned fool about it.” I quit school. I don’t regret it. I learned things in college that have stayed with me. I am glad I didn’t go to grad school in Psychology. I’m glad that I didn’t leave school buried in debt and have to accept a job based on my degree that I didn’t like. I am doing what I want to do with my life. I don’t make much money at it, but I get by. I consider this success. This year two books were published that examined students cheating in college and young graduates cheating to get ahead. They are The Cheating Culture by David Callahan and Making Good by Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan, Howard Gardner. Apparently cheating is not limited to government workers. Are we now living in a world that follows W.C. Fields’ advice that “A thing worth having is worth cheating for”?

Coda 2020

All of the above was written in 2004.

The recent brouhaha about parents cheating to get their kids into good schools reminded me I had written the above. So, what about now?

In 2008 I was an adjunct professor at Marylhurst University. I enjoyed teaching. My wife told me I might get farther teaching at the collegiate level if got my BA degree.

I drove to Seattle and went to the UW where I was helped by a woman named Miss Burke. She pulled up my ancient transcript. I asked “What do I need to do get my degree?” I gave her no other back story. She replied “You don’t need to do anything. You earned your degree and can graduate in June.”

So, a couple of months later there I was at the UW in the Stadium with many, many others, on a nice sunny day waiting to march up and get my degree. Around me were much younger people. In front of me were a couple of young guys. One of them was fixated on the time it would come to throw his hat in the air. He brought it up over and over in happy anticipation, “I can hardly wait to throw it up in air.”

Quincy Jones gave the commencement address. It was like he was talking to me. He said he was learning to speak Chinese. To keep it short, he was saying it was never to late to learn.

So, you might ask, just what happened between the 70’s, when my degree was refused, and the year 2008, when it was granted? In a word: Computers. What I understand is when they changed from files in a cabinet to files in a computer, it was so long after the UW had quit requiring students to have a foreign language that they didn’t bother to put the deficiency in the software. It could be that I was the only one affected.

Well, like Quincy said, you’re never to old to learn, or for that matter, to get a college degree.

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