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Gristmill: Campus Quandary

Wed, 01/12/2022 - 17:27

In “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” both M.J., the love interest, and Ned Leeds, the best friend, are accepted into their chosen institution of higher learning: M.I.T. Sure, they’re science nerds, essentially, but it’s almost made to look like a common occurrence.

College: It’s daunting when it should be fun. You’ve got to feel for kids these days, sweating out the early decisions, the early actions, or, more dispiriting than any of that, videotaping their athletic feats to puff up an application. And the SATs: Beyond virtue-signaling, what’s the point of no longer requiring culturally insensitive standardized tests if students will self-select regardless, as the ones who do well go ahead and submit their scores, while those who don’t submit them, well, as Stan Lee liked to say, “Nuff said.”

What’s more, this newfound dictate that everyone be superhumanly well rounded, at once a musician, an artist, a jock, an earnest volunteer, and a politician: Says who? What’s to become of the morose grind? What’s wrong with them? Nothing, that’s what. In fact, they run the world, if only from behind the scenes.

So, what happened in a generation? I wish I knew. Just like I wish that something other than perpetual befuddlement could characterize the American middle class. Somewhere along the line, affordability and accessibility became the inverse.

Let me put it this way: For the few of us Gen X slackers in the class of 1985 at Bridgehampton High, even N.Y.U. was a safety school. My science teacher, one Al Trages, who East Hamptoners might remember from the old Crystal Room and his clam pies, read me the riot act for getting a 75 on my chemistry Regents. Among one red F and assorted other indignities. And yet I sailed easily to Boston U. — dropping out almost as soon as I got there, but that’s another story. My point: Last I read, it now has an acceptance rate in the teens. And the price? Forget about it.

Still, a parent I know and her daughter had B.U. on their short list, took one look at the lack of a central campus, a major thoroughfare piercing its concrete heart, and turned on their heels. She’ll be attending a small liberal arts college in Maine.

Sounds about right. Me, I went on to Beloit College in Wisconsin, 1,100 students. Highly recommended, as they say. I remember going out for beers with an English prof I befriended; it was that kind of place. In fact, one independently designed writing class was conducted entirely in a neighborhood bar.

Those were different times.

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