Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Regular colleges offer a tougher path to a degree

Back in the early 1980s, when I was in the Marines and stationed at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., one of the guys in my squadron decided to avail himself of the educational opportunities offered at the local civilian college.

Back then, there was something called “distance learning” – usually over the television — and there were correspondence courses from the Marine Corps Institute, but few guys seemed to have completed any of that. The main way to get a college education was to go to college.

Arizona Western College’s offerings were touted on the base, but the lack of transportation to attend classes blocked me from attending. My co-worker, however, found that once he was admitted, going to college while working in a Marine squadron was not as easy as he thought it would be. He often missed classes for extra duties – the Marines always took priority – and I do remember one incident where he needed a note from an NCO because he had missed something important, like an exam.

Today, the troops have not only unrivalled access to education but also a government eager to pay for it. Unfortunately, easy access does not mean that the education is useful or even legitimate. Private “career colleges,” both online and those you attend in person, have sprung up. While some may be sincere in their claim to want to educate, the consumer needs to be careful.

My experience with these training schools is very limited and I won’t use names. But let’s be realistic: they’ve existed for decades. Go to google.com and check out the old back issues of magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, etc., and you’ll see countless schools in their issues going back into the 1910s, offering training (correspondence or through local schools) in a wide variety of fields. In my quick study of the offerings, financing was available, and I wonder how many people got themselves deeply into debt back then trying to learn a skill to land a job.

Education was not free for me in the military or afterward – the GI Bill did not exist in the post-Vietnam era, and there was something called VEAP and I paid into it, but later cashed out before I was eligible for benefits.

I had registered and attended the first day of class at a school that could train me for the Airframes & Powerplant licence, but I had just been hired by the post office and decided to drop out. I also gave back the student loan I had taken out.

In the late 1980s, down in Florida by this time, I initially thought about going to a local career college for electronics training, but decided not to because of the cost.

I had become terrible disaffected with the Postal Service but had bills to pay, so quitting without any training was irresponsible, so I decided my best bet was to knuckle down and continue working, go to a regular academic college and see what would develop.

The hard part for many adults, who believe the nonsensical idea that college is only for the 18-21 set, is just getting themselves in the door. It’s also psychological, because many adults incorrectly think that they are not that intelligent and will be made to look unintelligent in college classes, and humiliated by the professor and fellow students.

I was apprehensive, but one day in 1988 I drove to Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College), parked the car and went into the admissions office. It was an intimidating place, even for me, in my late 20s, a former Marine and then-postal worker. The woman behind the counter wasn’t too welcoming, and handed me a list of things I needed to do if I wanted to attend.

First of all, I had to take the ACT. Then I had to see if I needed any remedial work. And then, finally, I could register, but I’d be last in line.

The important thing was, I wasn’t in a hurry to get started or get some certificate or degree. I had time to look over my options and get ready. I registered for the ACT, studied for the test and passed it. I filled out the many forms that a public college requires and eventually got set up for my first class, a summer-semester course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

Some of my postal superiors and co-workers thought I was wasting my time and money going to college, but I knew they were wrong. My friends and neighbors thought it was great. I thought it was something that would help me in the future.

The thing was, I was flexible about what I wanted to be, and in any case the first two years at the community college would be just courses I needed to get a degree. Later, I could take the courses toward my specific area of study.

The social sciences class was great, and I fit right in. We were a mix of kids out of high school and adults returning to school, and I did well. Soon, I had my first three college credits and was off to the races.

College was a long-term commitment since I was working full time, and that meant taking two or three courses a semester. I think one semester at Florida Atlantic University I took five classes, and got four A’s and a B. Working and making a good living – albeit for an organization I despised, the Postal Service – meant I could pay my way through college with no borrowing or grants.

It took about six years to get my bachelor’s degree in communications, and I graduated owing nothing to those student loan companies, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Believe me, I attended too many “mandatory” financial aid meetings.

That piece of paper I earned has opened countless doors to employment and insight, much more than a certificate from some for-profit “college.”

The hard way is the best way, in my opinion.

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January 12, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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