The right way to choose a college

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

It’s Saturday morning, brisk and bright, and I’m sitting in my dining room with a cup of Eight O’Clock Colombian Peaks Coffee — “rich, winey, full-bodied.” 

This morning I’ve got my Wall Street Journal which gives us a story titled “The Right Way to Choose a College.”

The piece, written by Stanford’s Denise Pope, says “Today’s admissions scandal should serve as a wake-up call. As a society we need to re-examine the issues that lead families to be obsessed with college status.”

I find this point of view interesting because the Wall Street Journal also ranks, each and every year, the top 500 colleges in the United States. Not only are the universities ranked in order of merit, but the WSJ spends a lot of time promoting the rankings and urging parents to pay attention to its list. 

While they sometimes sidebar an obscure college like Berea College in Kentucky as having good student-teacher relationships, their over-arching focus is endowment, research grants and percentage of professors with doctorates — and why Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Duke deserve single-digit rankings. 

There is also a factor which might be called “extra money to be earned after getting a Harvard degree.” The Journal says that at an elite school like Yale, a graduate might expect an $800,000 bump over twenty years. This compares with “one-third of this amount at the University of South Carolina.”

Last year, my own alma mater — The Citadel — was not to be found in the WSJ listings. 

At first I thought I had missed the school as my eyes scrolled down the list. But after re-reading the rankings I realized that Citadel had not made the cut. 

This sent me into a persisting funk thinking that the Journal editors did not appreciate the beauty of close-order drill or the mathematics connected to the operation of an 81 mm mortar. 

As I again re-examined the rankings, my mind wandered back to 1963.

When I walked through the Lesesne Gates in August of 1963, I was a middling, mediocre scholar and suspected I was in for a tough slog. My father had said, “Let’s face facts Scott, you’re a mediocre student. When you layer the military part on top your class work, … well, you’re not going to make it.”

And for the first two years, I almost fulfilled my father’s prediction of failure. 

But, unknown to me, there was a maturation process under way, and slowly I was learning how to learn — how to study — all the while putting a mirror-like spit-shine on my just-for-inspection shoes. 

And in the early part of my third year, I wandered into Constitutional Law as taught by professor Lawrence Moreland. 

Larry Moreland was short, slight and had a dry wit. But he made the American Constitution — and those people who interpret that document — fascinating. 

In fact he made the American way of governing fascinating. 

And I was not immune to his extraordinary way of teaching — his ability to ignite one’s curiosity and, parenthetically, to pull the lever on one’s desire to get good grades. 

As I sit and sip my coffee this morning, I know that Larry Moreland is singularly responsible for my interest in law and that he got me into the law school at George Washington University. I want to think that the potential to succeed was always there, but that Larry Moreland flipped the switch at the moment in time when I was ready to learn — and for me that came a little later than most.

Lately the WSJ has been reporting another trend — the closing down of small colleges across the United States. 

Apparently there has been a demographic drop in high school graduates that means a corresponding increase in empty desks, vacant dorm rooms and fewer tuition checks. 

This is unfortunate because small colleges like The Citadel are salted with teachers who know how to motivate students who may be slow off the block. They are salted with professors who can teach Shakespeare, calculus and chemistry to young men and women who do not do well on their SAT or do not have parents who can hire $10,000 tutors.

In 2017 I went back to Charleston for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1967. 

I had not regularly attended my reunions and was pleasantly surprised to discover my class had produced eight general officers, a host of colonels and captains who had once led rifle platoons in Vietnam and a dozen lawyers who were inspired by Larry Moreland and his take on the American constitution.

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