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Mommy dearest

Published January 30. 2012 05:03PM


"Alma Mater" is Latin for "nourishing mother." The term is usually applied to some school or college from which we graduated. In my case, it's Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. When I attended in the late 1960s, F&M was a men's college. We students joked that the letters stood for "Frustration & Masturbation." The fall semester after I graduated was the first time F&M admitted female students. We frat boys joked that, once we were gone, it was safe enough to let them on the campus.

No doubt, my Alma Mater did nourish my puny brain… that is, when it wasn't thoroughly soaked in Iron City or Pabst or Old Reading or Rolling Rock beer. (Mine was not a wealthy fraternity, you understand. No imports or micro-brews for us.) She also in her wisdom shut down my frat house sometime in the 1970s. The building became the college's Art House, a weird irony that you will understand if you've ever seen the movie "Animal House." Says Wikipedia of this 1978 classic, staring John Belushi, "The film, along with 1977's Kentucky Fried Movie, also directed by [John] Landis, was largely responsible for defining and launching the gross-out genre of films, which became one of Hollywood's staple genres." Yes, we were pretty gross. Art House, indeed!

Anyway, it wasn't long before my Alma Mater began asking me to nourish her.

Yes, a college diploma is the only product you can buy where the seller expects you to keep on paying decades after you've driven it out of the showroom. On the other hand, every October, I and the thousands of my fellow (and now female) alums are welcome to return to the campus for Homecoming football, food, and nostalgic folderol. My Toyota dealership welcomes me back for oil changes, but that's not quite the same.

I don't go back every year anymore. When I do, it's with mixed emotions. The Art House is back to being Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity again. But I feel a bit like an intruder, among the latest generation of brothers. The baby-faced guy who spent four years guzzling beer and shooting pool there 40 some years ago is as much a stranger to me now, as is the new crop of guys inhabiting the house. Not long ago, the first of the 16 Phi Psi's in my pledge class passed on to the great frat house in the sky. Now, when I walk into the house, I hear the ticking of a clock, and I don't much like it.

I guess that even kids with the best of mothers must - sooner or later - leave home for good.


While my parents are still attending college reunions with eagerness and delight, I find myself debating whether or not to go back at all. I have mixed feelings about the college experience of my generation, as I'm sure many graduates do. While I enjoyed my four years in college, and certainly learned a lot, it's a little difficult to feel the same amount of nostalgia for an institution that leaves grads with an average of $22,000 in debt (though I have friends with triple that amount). Not only that, but it then has the nerve to call and ask for more money before we even have a chance to secure a minimum wage job - let alone pay off our college debt.

I hate to sound pushy, but frankly, this is unacceptable.

Of course, you can't not go to college. I read somewhere that whereas a high school diploma used to be something to brag about, now it's more akin the smiley face sticker on a first grade spelling test. College diplomas are the norm, and it's hard to get very far without one. But nowadays, far too many of those diplomas are coming at too great a price.

As children, we've been taught to work hard to get into the best college we possibly can, regardless of the price. However, only a few colleges hold the same amount of clout as they used to; while it might be worth it to pay close to full price to attend Harvard or MIT, it's far less worthwhile - but still entirely possible - to spend upwards of $80,000 on a lesser-known school. It might be a dream college experience, but the reality of having that much debt at the end of those four years is a nightmare.

It seems doubtful that the system is going change soon enough, though. (We'll probably need a full-blown student loan crisis before anyone starts thinking seriously about changing the way we do things in the U.S.) So what can we do? Well, what we really need are more responsible parents, teachers, and counselors to educate high school students about loans. An 18-year-old simply can't be expected to understand the impact that student loan debt will have on them four years into the future - but parents and teachers should. Meanwhile, we can only hope the government will catch up eventually and make some changes to a system that clearly no longer works.

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