-By Gordon Hughes

Somehow, I was convinced by my old fraternity brothers that heading up a reunion committee for the founding brothers of the Zeta Epsilon chapter of Theta Chi would be both easy and fun. Well, fun, yes. But from 3,000 miles away, easy? 

My alma mater is in Southern California, where I am originally from. I’m now living in NYC. I am a product of what was perhaps the best public school educational system in America at the time. My K through 12 experience with that system spanned post-war late ‘40s into the 1950s. Then there was college, and that’s where my fraternity reunion story starts. 

Like the majority of students studying at the California State University campuses, I worked my way through college just like the undergraduates I met at our reunion are doing today. There is one huge difference between then and now, though. Cost, yes, cost. I was able to pay as I went. No loans. No loans to pay back. That is surely not the way it is today. 

Let me digress. I don’t want to get political in this column, but there was a recent presidential candidate who thought post-high school trade schools, community two-year colleges, and even four-year state colleges and universities should be free. That set off many a contentious conversation around kitchen tables and water coolers. Now, there is a saying, “everything old is new again”—so this idea of free post-high school education was, and is not, new. That said, most Americans don’t know their history; but since I was a history major, every now and then I can appear to be rather erudite when historical topics arise at cocktail parties. 

So, about post-K-12 in US educational history: in 1862, during the American Civil War, President Lincoln and Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant College Act. The goal was to “establish colleges nationwide at no cost and to make them available to the working class.” Not a bad idea, especially during a war. 

In 1916 Congress legislated and expanded the Act in order to make colleges even more available to more citizens and, basically, free. I know this not only from my history studies, but also because during the Depression, my father traveled from his home in Boston to Alabama to take advantage of that program and attend the University of Alabama at no cost. As a matter of fact, in 1944, prior to the end of WW11, the GI Bill was passed. Congress adopted the bill to further educate the returning veterans, primarily men, for two reasons: first, to prepare these vets for upwardly mobile careers, and also to slow the numbers of men re-entering the work force.

 Eight million men from the armed services signed up for college and trade schools and about four million graduated. This was again at no charge to the students. At the time, about 3.9 percent of the U.S. population had graduated from college compared to 38 percent in 2021. 

In 1966, the year I graduated, college grads in the US were only 7.7 percent. Mom had gone to St. Mary’s in Joliet, Illinois on a scholarship. Very unusual that two folks from that era would be college grads. 

That brings me to my college career. I was putting myself through school, and back in those days I could go to a two-year lower division community college for $12 a semester plus books, live at home, and work to save up for two years of upper division schooling at a state university that cost $58 a semester plus books. (Of course, living expenses were also required, which included my fraternity dues.) I give this background to point out that for me, college was almost free and I incurred no debt. Most students had not heard of college tuition loans back then. Try that in today’s educational environment. 

Today, due to skyrocketing tuitions, three things are occurring: 1. (perhaps worst of all) Parents and students are questioning the need for a college degree, even though China is graduating 10.76 million students yearly compared to four million in the USA in 2021. The Chinese do not question the value of college. 2. Cost and loan payback are albatrosses around the necks of students for years after they graduate. 3. Public colleges and universities are turning into businesses, not just educational institutions. Students are paying the high fees and many of these institutions don’t care where the money comes from: whether students’ working, parents paying, scholarships or loans—as long as the fees come; and they will only continue to increase. 

Now let me get off that soap box and talk about my reunion. In my fraternity’s graduating class we had three brothers who became Olympic athletes, a professor at John’s Hopkins University, several college deans, and one guy who snuck into the lot at Universal Studios and directed an episode of the Twilight Zone with Joan Crawford because no one wanted to work with her: Steven Spielberg. Yes, Steven Spielberg stepped in and had his first directorial experience. The rest is history. 

One brother who, to this very day, is an amazing entrepreneur, bought a train tanker car full of corn in his junior year. For one cent on the dollar he bought the tanker, had the brothers offload it to a dump truck which he then drove to East L.A., and sold that corn to a tortilla factory and restaurants. Amazing! He is still doing that kind of thing today, and making a few bucks more than he did back then. Then, of course, there is me, a Broadway investor/producer who had a 25-year career at CBS before Broadway. 

During the evening all attendees got to tell their stories, each and every one of which was interesting and diverse. These young men, now grown men, had all traveled in such different directions. They had come together to share their stories. What a marvelous evening. And you know, that evening never could have occurred without our having attended college.


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