Sunday, July 9, 2023

Flashback 1997: Northwestern majors in sucking up money

     Never let it be said that Northwestern doesn't keep alumni on their toes. It's almost as if we have to be continually punished for whatever tattered shred of pride we try to retain from our association with the place by enduring a constant series of public humiliations perpetrated by an endless chain of privileged students and brain dead administrators who, well, to be kind, just aren't very good at this whole college thing. 
     I was reading the latest football hazing sex scandal in the Daily Northwestern and what one player term the "really abrasive and barbaric culture" that head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has been suspended pending the obligatory slap on the wrist, apparently tolerated. After I collected my jaw off the floor and finished shaking my head — how could they have not gotten the memo? — I thought about the 40 plus years since graduation, and all the other hazing scandals, fraternity outrages, and academic humiliations that emanated from Evanston. From the two students killed while drunkenly doing pushups in Sheridan Road to the two students expelled for breaking into Alice Millar Chapel and defacing it with homophobic graffiti... 
      There are so many, it's hard to settle on a favorite. I've written about a number, and was looking for my column on NU's notorious fucksaw sex ed class. But maybe blushing Sun-Times librarians never archived it. Anyway, I ended up with this column, perhaps my first in the Sun-Times to nostalgically consider my old school, back in the days when the prime embarrassment associated with Northwestern was how much the place charges. Good times. (Oh, and tuition has almost tripled since then). 

     Someday Northwestern University will do something academically that makes big headlines. Research maybe. Until that day arrives, it has the yearly tuition jolt to keep the old purple and white in public view.
     Say it out loud. "Twenty-two thousand, three hundred and ninety-two dollars." A lot of money. In a time of single-digit inflation, Northwestern is planning a 16.9 percent tuition increase for freshmen and transfer students. And they say greed is dead.
     That doesn't even include room and board, which is about another $6,700.
     I'd call NU and get the precise room and board figure. But my years of reporting have taught me that NU has the most sluggish media relations department in all of Chicago academia. The University of Chicago will send you a cake with the information you're looking for written on the top in frosting before NU calls you back. So say $6,700, for a yearly tab of about 30 grand.
     That, of course, is the full sticker price and, like the sticker prices of automobiles, it is negotiable. Only the academically challenged spawn of wealthy families pony up the full fare. Everybody else hustles for financial relief.
     When I enrolled at Northwestern, almost 20 years ago, tuition was nearly $5,400 - but it might as well have been $54,000 or $540,000 because my family could never pay it. Only by cobbling together a scanty fig leaf of scholarships, grants, work study, summer jobs and federal loans did we just manage to cover the obscene figure.
     It wasn't worth it. If I seem somewhat testy about NU, it is because, in my four years there, I became unalterably convinced that the school is primarily not an educational institution, but a big money machine, designed to perpetuate itself, build more god-awful concrete campus structures, dandle rich alumni and leech capital from them.
     Guilty about having such hard feelings toward my old alma mater, I phoned a former classmate and close friend from those days and asked if she would be disturbed to see NU cast in a bad light.
     "I have no good feelings toward the school at all because they didn't do anything," she said. "I'm thinking particularly of Medill (the journalism school). They had no interest in the students. Just none."
     Sounds right to me. I phoned another classmate, who surprised me by refusing to say anything about the school, as if it were a horror beyond words.
     Maybe I hung out with the wrong crowd.
     Also, the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't exactly the glory years for the school. Students were being housed in the gym. The football team won only one game in the four years I was there. When friends asked if I was going to the Rose Bowl to see NU, I told them that I hadn't attended any games while a student, and it was too late to start now.
     Then there was the president, during my years a joyless businessman named Robert H. Strotz, whom I saw in person on precisely two occasions during my time there — the first day of school freshman year, when he spoke to the incoming class, and at graduation.
     It's not that the NU education was bad. I had, in my four years, perhaps 10 teachers whom I really liked and admired and learned from.
     Looking back at it from a distance, considering the enormous outlay of capital, considering the decade of loan payments that followed, I can't help but wonder if I would have been better off going to Ohio State free, or traveling the world, or starting a business, or doing almost anything else than attending Northwestern.
     But Ohio State seemed a grim gulag, with its giant, Stalinesque dorms, and I felt I deserved better. In that sense, private schools such as NU are like luxury cars. They emphasize their amenities, their powerful engines, burled walnut dashboards, and such. But the fact is that a car is a car, basically, and a $15,000 one will get you there the same way a $50,000 one will.
     The difference is that luxury cars cost more, and everybody knows it. Prestige always costs money. Drivers of Jaguars and holders of NU diplomas have proved that they can pay the piper.
     In that sense, I guess, why not grab for the luxury if you can somehow swing it? Just as the parking valet doesn't know if you're leasing that Mercedes or own it outright, so the prospective employers won't know if you paid full fare for NU or got a scholarship, whether you sat around your frat sipping morning beers or actually studied hard.
     And who knows? Maybe NU has gotten better in the last 15 years. It better have. They're charging enough for it.
     — Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 6, 1997


  1. I was accepted at Northwestern, Michigan, Chicago, Princeton and Illinois. I asked my dad for counsel and he said, “Well, Charlie, I think we can afford Illinois.”

    It was the right call.

  2. Wow-surprised -always thought the Journalism school was very good; your piece sure has changed my impression of Northwestern. I attended a local all women's college back when there were such schools. I got an outstanding education and later attended one of their graduate programs for my masters.

  3. I was a grad student at Northwestern in the late 1960s, and I had a few professors who were good teachers. However, most of them had little interest in teaching grad students, much less undergraduates. In recent years, I've encountered Northwestern faculty who admit that the faculty attitude toward teaching hasn't changed. There are a few professors who actually enjoy teaching undergraduate majors, but most prefer grad students who will be able to teach themselves.

  4. Ah Neil, just another thing we all love about you! I like to tell people you don't burn bridges behind you, you walk around shooting a flame-thrower ahead of yourself. Re the central premise, I still waver. I mostly loved going to NU and had great classes and teachers. It's true Medill was of zero assistance to me at the time or afterward, and I doubt anybody I met in the working world treated me any differently if it turned out we both went there. And the money was nuts. Charlie's dad took the right approach. At my house,Dad must have been pulling for NU because Mom was 100% for U of I, and I still ended up in Evanston. One drive up Sheridan Road with my jaw dropping at the houses made me want to be there over Champaign. I liked the L ride into Chicago too, and didn't want to be in a small town for four years. NU was also useful for meeting wealthy preppy types for the first time, and understanding they were real. Pretty sure that could have waited, but now I just shrug my shoulders and think, "Well, it happened."

    1. You mean I'm endangering that honorary degree? I'm not famous enough. I'm glad I went — though I sometimes wonder what life would have been like had I gone to Columbia, which also admitted me. But NU gave more $$$, and I was afraid to live in Morningside Heights. "Taxi Driver" was two years old.

    2. Do you think you got the best possible J-school education at NU, Mr. S? Looks to me like you absorbed a lot there. A career as long as yours, at a major metropolitan daily, is nothing to sneeze at. Would Columbia have been any better in the long run? Well, New York's loss was Chicago's gain. You'd probably be still writing in the Big Apple after all these years. But I remember you saying that your dad took you to Chicago as a kid, and that you fell in love with my hometown at an early age. So many people do.

      I was a townie. My friends and I used to ride our bikes to the beaches behind the frat houses on Sheridan Road, in the days before the landfill extended the campus eastward, and the preppies would chase us away and run us off. I had no illusions about matriculating at NU, because I was a goof-off and a suburban punk in high school, and my grades were awful.

      On the other hoof, my straight-A kid sister got in, and was all set to go to school in Evanston. Then she was told that she would not be allowed to live on-campus. Some doofus realized that since her parents lived such a short distance away, she could continue to live at home and easily commute. There was no question that she had to get the hell out of Dodge, to escape some serious parental abuse. So it was either Oberlin or Beloit. She chose Beloit. Met her husband there. They are still married.

      Frankly, I'm a bit surprised at your snarking at your alma mater, Mr. S.. When I knocked it, a while back, mostly because they wouldn't hire me to work in the library, decades ago, you ripped me a new one. School is a lot like family.. You can say whatever you like...but heaven help the outsider who criticizes either one.

    3. Off topic, Grizz. Do you know if your neighbor found his dog?

    4. She ran off eight days ago. But I can't find the notice on Facebook, and the LOST DOG signs are no longer on the utility poles. Both of which are positive signs.

  5. Why is it that if you want to teach elementary through high school you must have a degree in education but to be a college professor all you need is a Ph. D. in your field.
    If you get a good college prof consider yourself lucky.
    Most don’t know the principles of education nor do they know how to create tests.

    1. As a Chicago Circle grad (before they dropped the Circle part), I was subjected to an endless parade of un-interested professors in the sciences. Except for one, it was awful. Other courses (history especially) were better but that was definitely the exception. They want to do research and do as little to imporve their teaching ability as possible it seemed to me.

  6. A U.P. friend told me his daughter had Northwestern as one of her top choices. I shuddered and sent him a bunch of links to the awful sorority culture there. He was happy to tell me recently that she's settled on the residential collage at the (in-state) University of Michigan.

  7. I attended Northwestern a few years after you in the mid-80s and gotta disagree with you on this one as I feel quite good about my Northwestern experience. I was also able to attend due to a compilation of grants, loans, scholarships, and 4 years of work-study employment so, had I chosen to go to U of I (now UIUC), my debt load would have been easier. But am *absolutely* certain I would not have been as challenged by professors, classes, and by other students there the way I was at NU and that has benefitted me in countless ways throughout my life.

    Something I learned long after graduation and which impressed me about NU, was that it was an early adopter of a need-blind admission policy, meaning they assessed applicants' ability to succeed academically first, and then once accepted, would figure out how to make it financially possible. And the school made (and continues to make) amazing efforts to make financial aid available to any student who needs it. Certainly one can debate the value of its price but that need-blind approach is worlds different from many (most?) of its competition among private universities. (Certainly wasn't the approach used at Duke where I went to grad school where it was *obviously* less economically diverse and much of the burden of financing fell to the student.)

    I also like the historical factoid that NU went co-ed in the 1870s, a century+ before so many of its peer institutions. Thanks, Frances Willard!! :-)

  8. I attended, resided, and worked at NU from 1970 to 1981. I accepted a seat at NU because it had the biggest and fastest scientific computer among the US elite schools. Better than the east coast ivies, and I applied to those too. I made all my lasting mentors and friends at the computing center. Most of my classes were a snooze, and I agree the profs were encouraged to publish and not to teach. As an upperclassman, I was recruited to teach and devise exams in place of one associate prof. My first advisor, poorly chosen in the Philosophy Dept, spent my meeting time arguing with someone in another office down the hall. My second advisor was a famous CompSci author, who I would often startle when he was reading comic books or feelthy magazines. TL;DR, I didn't learn much in class, but I basically taught myself a career's-worth among my pals at Vogelback. So, abstractly it was worth the cost.

    1. Dave, I worked with you at a certain IT company in River North from 1987 into the 1990s, so I can say with certainty that we all acquire our learning and experience in different ways, some rather unpredictable, but it was always entertaining.


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