applied to university in an era before the cost of a four-year degree approximated the purchase price of a Ferrari and the indebted student was an infected wart on American culture. Two months before I began my application process one Ivy League school announced it would raise annual tuition by $200, breaking the $3,000 ceiling. Angry editorials followed, some prophesizing the beginning of the end of enrollment at elite colleges. Parents would instead sense their children to state universities whose charges then rarely exceeded a few hundred dollars a year.
The admissions process terrified me. I wanted no judges and juries weighing in on my fragile merits. My grades were modest and my test scores abysmal. To counter this, I decided to apply to as many schools as possible — application fees then ranged from $10 to $25 — watering down the coming pain of rejection. In all, I applied to 28 universities, including Missouri’s College of the Ozarks, whose application process was free. Its brochure concluded with two words, “Applications welcome.”
My epic list included Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brandeis, St. Louis University, Stanford, Georgetown, University of Chicago, Amherst, Columbia, Wesleyan, Wisconsin Madison, Reed College, and of course my Ozark friends. Of these 28 schools, at least a dozen would surely capitulate to a longhaired teen that wore dark sunglasses and tested poorly — or so I reasoned. I spent considerable time on my essays, personalizing each one attentively (except the Ozarks, which seemed less interested in an essay than my interest in them.)
My typed out labors complete, I sat back and awaited the mailman (less charming then than it might sound now). In March, three upper tier schools rejected me as part of their early vetting processes. No matter, I had 25 to go.
The bottom fell a few weeks later. Between late March and mid-April I received 22 consecutive rejection letters, each one politely written, neatly typed and personally signed. Stanford, however, took a snooty approach, which I never forgot: “Dear Mr. Winner: We regret to inform you we cannot offer you a place in our enrolling class. We realize after these first few words little can be of faint solace to you.”
Just how they came to this transcendent insight regarding my moods and reactions I’ll never know.
But it wasn’t over. A few days later I heard from Georgetown, another no, and then from my beloved folk in the Ozarks. I was not an “appropriate” candidate, they said, after which they retreated without a trace into the ungratefully Presbyterian mountains of the Midwest.
The next day, Amherst held forth. I was, they explained, “a fascinating if contradictory candidate,” and while they found “the prospect of my enrollment” interesting, they wouldn’t allow mere curiosity to kill their beloved cat. Instead, they urged me to “prove us wrong” elsewhere.
Except that I had no elsewhere, not even in the mountains. My plan had been spoiled. Judges and juries had spoken. I’d be a enrolled in the College of the None.
Only then did my father mention Columbia, the school he’d once attended but left after his second year, choosing instead to try to make it to Moscow for the Russian Revolution (he failed). Undone by rejections, I’d forgotten that I’d received no word from New York.
Trembling, I dialed the admissions office — this in the days humans still answered office phones. In seconds I was put through to the head of admissions. Four life-saving words followed, “So, are you coming?”
I was. I did. And I received my degree a year after my father’s death. I emerged somewhat educated and no more broke than I’d been when I started out. My slate was clean and life began.
That’s how it should be for most graduating students. Instead, only one surefire degree is coming out of America these days, a bachelor of debt, and it’s slowly but very surely reducing education to the sum of lingering aftereffects that have nothing whatever to do with learning.