Colleges are in an awful quandary.
Like most other institutions in the country, they’ve been hit hard by the country’s financial crisis. Sluggish state budgets don’t have room for generous funding. Alumni struggle to dig into their shrinking pockets for donations. Many universities have been forced to raise tuition in order to continue providing quality education for the next generation.
Only that next generation is struggling, too.
In what many consider the cruelest of Catch 22s, it’s become increasingly difficult for many of the nation’s high school graduates to afford a college education, in an economy where it’s nearly impossible to get a good job without one.
A recent nationwide poll shows that the majority of respondents are so frustrated with the situation that they’re beginning to view colleges as nothing more than businesses, concerned only with the bottom line.
The situation is not only problematic for the individual, but for the entire nation. As Norm Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO, warned his audience at the WVU 2010 David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas, America cannot afford to become complacent about innovation or education, because they are the most direct paths to progress and a healthy economy.
“Education is more important today than it’s ever been,” Augustine said, “and I’ve always thought education was important.”
In all of the turmoil, West Virginia University has emerged with its reputation as the premier state institution intact, having managed to stay family budget-friendly while maintaining a high standard of education. In-state and out-of-state tuition remain affordable, especially when measured against other similar institutions. Substantial scholarships are still available to top students. Morgantown has proved resistant, if not immune, to the recession, and WVU graduates have gone on to occupy some the top offices in government, business and healthcare.
It’s a winning combination for those concerned with costs and job prospects – studies show that a college degree means, on average, another $20,000 in annual income over what high school graduates earn. Graduate degrees bump that number even higher. And the jobs that come with those degrees are usually better in other ways, too – better benefits, better environment, better retirement plans.
But it’s not the entire story.
Because beyond the numbers, beyond the polls and the studies and the forecasts, there are people. They are people whose lives have been transformed by the realization of a college degree. For them, the value of an education has nothing to do with money they spent to attain it.
The value of an education is in the experience, and the way it quietly and diligently paves out the path to a brighter future, for them and for all who come after them.
“The scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength. We strongly believe that a worldwide strengthening will benefit the world’s economy … But we are worried about the future prosperity of the United States.”
-excerpt from the governmental report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”
Mollie McCartney was born and raised in Walkersville, Lewis County. It’s one of those places so remote and insular that it makes the only slightly larger county seat feel like the big, booming city.
Years ago, glass factories employed most everyone in town, and sustained most everything. Today, all but one has been shuttered and forgotten. People work – when they can find work – at the local Walmart or Sharpe Hospital, an acute care psychiatric facility. Unemployment is high. Graduation rates are low.
McCartney’s mother grew up in this part of West Virginia, where she graduated from high school. Her husband, who split his childhood between West Virginia and Maryland, dropped out of school to work and care for his siblings. He later joined the Army. Neither went to college.
But they took their children on vacations to museums and historical landmarks, ignoring the pouting and repeated complaints of how everything they did was “so nerdy.” They never talked about any goal being out of reach. So when McCartney told her parents she wanted to become a doctor, they nodded and said “You can do anything you want to do,” even though Walkersville has always been the kind of place that begs for doctors, not produces them.
McCartney remembers the young physicians who filed through town, stopping only because they had work to do for social programs or toward bigger futures.
“There’s a different way of living in the lower-income areas of West Virginia and a lot of physicians unwittingly take a paternalistic approach: ‘We’ll save you from yourselves.’”
McCartney knew the people of rural West Virginia didn’t need saving, no matter how well-intentioned the savior. They just needed someone to understand, and she planned to be that person. She planned to bridge the divide between those who consume health care and those who provide it. “Growing up here, and growing up the way that I did, I think will help me be a better doctor.”
By most estimates, McCartney is the first Walkersville resident to be accepted to medical school in at least a decade. So when WVU welcomed her in, early decision, her parents made sure everyone in town knew it.
Their daughter, she was going to be a doctor. Not necessarily because she was smart – a lot of people in Walkersville are smart – but because she firmly grasped the idea that education has the power to change lives.
“You can have all of the social programs, health care programs and welfare programs you want,” she says. “But we live in a society where you need an education if you want to change your circumstances.”
Today, McCartney’s circumstances are frenzied. She calls the second year of medical school “the great equalizer,” because it’s difficult for everyone. But even in her most trying moments, she doesn’t regret the choices she’s made. Before she’s even lived life as a doctor, she’s glad she chose to become one, because the path she’s marching toward the goal might be as fulfilling as the goal itself.
“I’ve learned so much about myself,” she says. “I’m tougher than I thought I was. I’m more independent. And my worldview has changed because my education allowed me to travel. Intellectually, I always understood that there were other countries out there, but now I know that people are basically all the same.
“We’re all interconnected.”
“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
-Lewis Carroll from “Through the Looking Glass”
Ken Gray still had a lot to offer.
He was an accomplished Army major general, on the brink of retirement. He’d already gathered a lifetime’s worth of military medals and honors, but he couldn’t see spending his remaining decades basking in past achievement. He wanted more. So he figured he’d get another job, preferably something that would pay him well, and grind out another few years in the work force.
His friend had another suggestion: “I think you should do something that warms your heart.”
So when then-WVU president David Hardesty came calling in 1996, asking Gray to join the University as the vice president for student affairs, Gray was torn.
His friend’s advice lingered in the back of his mind, tangled there with his memories of Morgantown.
Gray had grown up in McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia, during the 1950s, when coal was king and the school system was still segregated. He’d earned his undergraduate degree from West Virginia State, a historically black university, so until he stepped onto WVU’s campus in 1966, he’d never been the only African-American in a classroom.
The campus community embraced him; the challenging law program swallowed him and his classmates and forged a lasting camaraderie. But Morgantown was cold. When no one wanted to rent Gray and his wife an apartment, they bought a mobile home and still had trouble finding someone who would allow them to park on the property.
It wasn’t an easy existence, but it was a defining one. When Gray graduated in 1969, only the third African-American to earn a law degree from WVU, he knew his education had prepared him to do anything, to compete with anyone.
Three decades later, having risen steadily through the ranks of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and becoming its first – and still only – African-American major general, he was a different man, living in a changed world. No doubt Morgantown had changed, too.
But it was the promise of influence that finally convinced Gray to take Hardesty up on his offer. He knew, that as the vice president for student affairs, he’d have the ability to shape the experience of each student who earned a WVU degree, even if he never met them.
“I never thought I’d come back when I left,” Gray says. “But being here at WVU, being able to work with students, warms my heart every day.”
Just like his friend had predicted.
Today, Gray owns a house just down the street from where he once parked that mobile home. The campus community still embraces him and he still believes in the power of education, both inside and outside of the classroom.
He’s built campus programs that have earned national recognition and helped students transition from high school to college, to break out of the insulated lives they’ve led and welcome the diversity and opportunity that WVU has to offer.
The students who benefit from those programs may not know Gray, but he understands what he’s done for them. It’s the same thing the school did for him all those years ago: gave him the ability to conquer all that was put in front of him.
“I know when they graduate, they will look back and appreciate the time they spent here,” Gray says. “College is such a unique time. Its true value is that it prepares our students to compete in the world, to do anything they want to do.”
For Mollie McCartney and Ken Gray, the value of education isn’t in the dollars it took to achieve it. The value is in all they’ve achieved since.
They transformed themselves from small-town kids, surrounded by an under-educated population, to overachievers, interested in success and revolution. For them, holding a degree is equivalent to holding power to change things.
They understand that the reason we go to college is to change, not to become different people, but to become better versions of the people we already are.
So the question for high school seniors really becomes not, what does it cost to go to college, but what does it cost – you and society—not to.
By April Johnston
WVU New and Information Services
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