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Jack Zaleski, Published August 25 2012

Zaleski: Even flunking out had to be more fun

When I have the opportunity, I confess I flunked out of some of the best colleges on the East Coast. Not true. It was only one college, and it is not among the best.

I was reminded of that history last week as college students began the return to Fargo and Moorhead for the new school year. Thousands of them packed campuses, parking lots and streets. Their energy changes the cities.

But it’s far different from what it was for the baby boom generation, of which I am a member of the oldest cohort. When, after a freshman year at a different college, I began my sophomore year at the University of Connecticut (the beautiful main campus at Storrs), few students had cars. Those who did were mostly Vietnam veterans who were financing school on the GI Bill.

Rooms were Spartan, even in the fraternity I pledged, a choice I made because the food was good. A couple of guys had hi-fi systems (wow!) but no one had a phone in the room. The nearest phone was a pay booth in the first floor hallway. That was it.

Regarding cars: My mother drove me the 60 miles or so from my hometown to the UConn campus in her ’63 Impala. We loaded it up with bedding, clothes and leftover freshman books. At the fraternity house, a couple of friends helped me unload my stuff then pack it into a less-than-plush third-floor room, and that was that. Said goodbye to Mom, and she drove off, saying she’d see me at Thanksgiving.

Student cars were so uncommon parking lots were full only during sporting events or special raise-hell weekends. Most of the time, we walked, not only to classes, but into the village of Storrs for pizza or a movie. The UConn campus was big, so walking to class was no small matter. But walk we did.

It’s gotta be tougher to be a student today. Of course, there are those costs for a car. But when student loan debt is larger than the national total of credit card debt, something is wildly out of whack. Today’s student is saddled with crushing debt before he/she graduates. And there aren’t enough good-paying jobs to finance a modestly good life and pay off student loans.

I was able to work at a 10-week summer job (aircraft parts factory, electrician’s helper or insulation installer), do a few hours a week during the school year in a work/study program (more study than work), and pile up enough money to pay every dollar for tuition, fees (science labs) and books, and still have enough left over for mad money all year. Never asked Mom for a dime. (I routinely begged for use of her Impala, but that was all about impressing a girl.)

Comparisons of college life today and my experiences some 45 years ago don’t always hold up. Times really do change. But knowing what it was then and what it is now convinces me that today’s students have to grow up faster. They face a tougher job market. They are far more stressed just trying to fit an education into an economy that is not student-friendly.

Heck, even flunking out once was more fun than that.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.