Pyatt: University system out of control

I was the first in my family to attend college and to graduate. It was a struggle. In my teens I didn’t live in the best neighborhood and my grades dropped some. But I had a good time. There was a dispute among my parents — only years later would I understand that women prevail when they set their minds — as to whether I would work and save up money or whether my family and I would work together and I would start college after completing high school.

My parents had just moved into a brand-new ranch house, and money was tight. I worked at summer jobs, took out some student loans, and eventually my grades improved to the point where I received a scholarship.


I stayed up until 2 a.m. on most nights studying and had to be up at 6:30 to get breakfast. There were no breaks in lectures the first two years Flunk-out rate was 75 percent at what is now considered a top-tier university. Fear of failure was a strong motivator, and a lot of kids who I thought were smarter fell by the wayside. I graduated at near the top of my engineering class.

I can understand parents wanting the best for their kids. Would they have bribed a coach, assuming that they had the money? It’s possible, but very unlikely. I also think today’s kids are being pressured by their parents to attend these “name” universities without any follow-through or a long term plan.

I can also sort of identify with Donald Trump — his parents allegedly doctored his high school and college grades to get him into the University of Pennsylvania MBA program — since he probably had a lot of conflicting things going on in his life. But he still had to pass all of his courses, and he graduated.

My career is not atypical of the modern era. It looks a bit like a DNA molecule. My BS and MS were in aerospace engineering, but I had to transition by a job choice to the nuclear power field — by taking a lot of in-house courses akin to an apprenticeship yet not getting a formal university degree in that field.

Next was another mix of university courses, including statistics and data development and in-house courses coupled with work experience to become certified as a “risk assessment” engineer. Finally another layer of health courses coupled with work experience over quite a few years to be certified as an “epidemiologist.”

The current university system — cost, rankings, reputation — is out of control. It mostly serves as a bragging point for parents. Corporations know the score, and they are looking for a combination of smarts, diligence, and team building. My resume opened a few doors early in my career, but in the long run it is a mixture of talent, ambition, and knowing how to play office politics. That you don’t get in school.

The University at Southern California (USC) has worked its way to elite status and is renowned for its MBA program in particular. I suspect the desirability of this program — and those willing to cough up the necessary tuition — is going to take a hit from the recent scandal, deservedly or not.

There have been studies and articles recently that intelligence, aptitude, and diligence doesn’t seem to vary that much — at least regarding earnings and presumably career success — between those going to “top tier” universities or those going to just “OK” universities. But it doesn’t make a good bumper sticker.

I learned teamwork and trust when I joined the Mount Airy Jaycees. I learned public speaking from Toastmasters, International. Both of these are very cheap — if your organization doesn’t already pick up the tab.

There is a wealth of colleges and universities in this country and Maryland offers some of the best at affordable prices. I recently took a few courses in cyber security at Carroll Community College, and they were excellent. There are probably a dozen or more that are good enough for almost any talented student.

The bachelors’ degree of today is like extended high school, and it is only at the graduate level that students point to a meaningful career path. I went three years at night to get an MS. Students must stay extremely focused — think STEM — and not meander off course. Work experience and university training are now intertwined. There are fewer opportunities to “find oneself.”

The workforce of tomorrow will reward those who follow this perilous and difficult path. It may be unnecessarily harsh on those who fall off the trail for one reason or another. And this troubles me a lot because at one time, high school graduates had satisfying lives and careers.

I would like to thank posthumously my former 10th and 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Seavers. She saw something in me. I was exempted from taking freshman English, but was pushed into the “Honors” program and had to read about 50 classic works of literature. All at the same time as studying calculus, chemistry, physics, and other freshman engineering courses. I didn’t do so well in these courses — no surprise — but I always wanted to do some writing.

I’m finally getting this opportunity.