What I Learned by Going Back to College

A few years ago, I went back to school. I was in my 60s and nearing retirement as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. In that position I had been observing universities, faculty, administrators, and students for five or six years and I thought I knew a lot about academia.

I was aware that many students are slackers, that a lot of faculty members have a leftist bias, that college costs too much, that there’s grade inflation and a lot of administrative waste and red tape. But I wanted to study again, and North Carolina State University was less than a mile away from where I lived.

My idea was to get a master’s degree in history when I retired. While I’ve been interested in history since childhood, I largely skipped it at Wellesley where I got my undergraduate degree in English five decades ago. There was too much reading—a professor wrote on one of my exams: “You have the main themes right but are weak on the details.” There were just too many details for that dreamy, disengaged student I used to be.

I had matured over the years, however, and thought that if I took a course or two while still working I could see if a master’s degree made sense. I did have a fleeting dread of being the subject of one of those sentimental newspaper features about someone getting a diploma at age 75 (written by reporters desperate to find local color). Oh, well. 

Another problem is that college is typically an investment, and I don’t have a lot of time left to earn a return—in other words, for me, it would have to be what economists call a consumption good; that is, I would have to do it for fun.

Despite such concerns, I couldn’t stop looking at State’s history department website. Reading the requirements for a master’s degree in history, I discovered a chance to pursue another childhood dream as well: attaining fluency in French! To get a history diploma, I would have to pass a language exam—and there was an undergraduate course designed exactly for the French-language exam. My love of French had been abandoned and almost forgotten.

So I signed up, beginning with the French exam course. The registration process required study of a perplexing website and some unanswered phone calls and I never did get a parking space. A non-degree student, as I am for the time being, is last in line, so I would have to get a distant spot and then take a bus to my class. But I was not going to be deterred by such trifles. I chose public parking and walked to class. 

So far, I have taken five courses, three of them since I retired last February. I still feel uncomfortable being more than three times the age of most of the students (and older than the professors as well). But I remind myself of what Tom Wolfe discovered when he visited campuses like Duke to write his book I Am Charlotte Simmons—the students didn’t pay any attention to the old guy taking notes. 

What have I learned about college? I learned that much of what I previously thought is right. To start off, it’s expensive—even though State is one of the least costly major universities in the country. An undergraduate course costs $1,072, a graduate course $2,358 (plus books in both cases). If you take a graduate course and an undergraduate course you pay two times the graduate price, or $4,716. A couple of courses could cost me a European cruise! And these are in-state prices. (Not to put too fine a point on it, I went to Wellesley for $2,500 a year, including room and board.) 

As for time and space utilization, I never had a class that started before 10:15 am and never one on Friday—not surprisingly, the 1:30 pm class had trouble finding an extra room for a discussion group. Recently a winter storm warning caused most K-12 schools to open two hours late, which meant about 10 am; NC State announced it would open at noon. 

And yes, my assumption that college has some liberal political bias still seems to be right. I sensed that my professors were leftist and that they probably assumed that everyone else was. I was reluctant to reveal that I worked for the Pope Center. In fact, I don’t think I ever did. I brushed off a few comments that struck me as politically one-sided, since I wasn’t there to fight the culture wars but to learn French and history. 

Students are treated generously at State. You can get an A+! If you aren’t doing well in a course, you have nearly two months to decide whether to drop out. When students complained that a final exam occurred on the very last day before Christmas break, one professor allowed the unhappy students to write a final paper instead. Such flexibility wasn’t possible back at Wellesley: the only time I saw a student turn in a paper late was when it was fifty pages long—much longer than the assignment; she looked thin and distraught as though she had been writing for days; it was brilliant; and she soon joined Phi Beta Kappa.

As for the students themselves, in my 200-level (sophomore) class I sat next to a young man who regularly put his head on his desk to rest as soon as he arrived—and this was at 1:30 in the afternoon! He hardly ever took a note.

Most students aren’t like that. They were at least dutiful and sometimes energetic (especially graduate students). And most classes I took were small. Aside from the 200-level survey course of about 60 students, I had only classes of 15 students or fewer; one with six students, one with eight. 

The classes were small because I was doing something that fewer students are doing these days. I was taking courses in the humanities. And not just any courses—carefully chosen traditional courses taught by professors who love their subject and have accumulated a lot of knowledge. Three were tenured professors and one was an adjunct who liked to explore the pedagogy of foreign language teaching. (For those who are counting, I took two courses from the same professor). 

Their embedded knowledge was, as kids say today, awesome. They treated me well and I have learned a lot. Sometimes all I talk about these days is European history.

Finally, I confirmed something else that I had learned over the past few years—a student’s success depends as much on the student as on the teacher. If you don’t study the material, if you don’t take notes, if you don’t pay attention, you won’t learn much and you’ll just slide by. When I found myself unable to finish a French exam in the allotted time, I bought a book on study skills, which was quite helpful (I learned to pay closer attention to the professor, who signals with repetition and emphasis what will be on the exam). 

Fifty years ago, I was something of a slacker, although I had never heard that term. My family sent me to college; they were paying for it, I was “finding myself,” and I didn’t have time for the “details.” So my final lesson is one attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “Youth is wasted on the young.” 

But if you live long enough you may be able to make up for it.