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On the Hot Seat at a High School Graduation

by on June 08, 2016 6:00 AM

Rebel that I was, I skipped my own high school graduation 40-some years ago, but journeyed 2700 miles last week to watch my friends’ son participate in the same ceremony.

Well, OK, I was going to California anyway, so as long as I was in the neighborhood, I put Ross’ graduation on my itinerary.

This would be a glimpse of the road not taken -- the high school my kids would have attended if we hadn’t moved to State College when they were little. I almost backed out when I saw the expected high temperatures: Wednesday – 98, Thursday – 99, Friday – 100, Saturday – 101. Graduation was Thursday.

Fortunately, the ceremony was in the evening. Unfortunately, the seats were concrete bleachers that had retained enough of the day’s heat to fry my bacon.

Ross, who looks like Matt Damon, welcomed us to the proceedings as class president. That was a highlight. So was seeing his mom, by virtue of her position as a teacher at the school, get to hug him when he ascended the platform to receive his diploma.

The third highlight was the valedictorian, whose remarks included an anecdote about a bumper sticker. “Speak English or Go Home,” it said. A few audience members cheered, not knowing the messenger, who was gay, was about to attack the message. The upshot was a call to embrace and celebrate diversity, not reject and fear it.  

“God help us all,” muttered a man in front of me, whose bacon was clearly fried by both message and messenger.

That night I heard that only 20 percent of this high school’s graduates attend college. I was astonished. Not everyone seeks more formal education after high school, I knew, but the idea that there is a link between bachelor’s degrees and greater earning power is so entrenched that I thought most high school kids would have embraced it by now.

More than 80 percent of State College Area High School’s grads, for example, head off to college after high school. I didn’t know the percentages for either school when I moved my family from California to State College 20 years ago, but those numbers, 20 percent vs. 80 percent, are a good shorthand explanation of why I’m glad I came back east.

I know better than to think that people with two or four years of college are smarter than people whose schooling ends at high school (I don’t have to look any further than my father for an example of a smart guy who went to work right out of high school). I just have found more like-minded people here than I did there, and the fact that State College is a university town surely accounts for it.

My one knock on State College is that it’s too much a college town. That is, for all its international diversity, it’s becoming ever more socioeconomically homogeneous. Note, for example, that the people who work on the borough’s houses and yards are likelier to live outside the Centre Region than in it.

Among the things I miss about where I lived in California are, for lack of a better term, the good old boys – the ranchers, miners and loggers I got to know first through my dissertation research and then as a newspaper reporter.

I don’t want to romanticize these guys – I disagreed with most of them on just about every political issue you can think of – but the one thing they had in common with my New York Jewish dad was a down-to-earth way of speaking that was refreshingly free of academic pretension.

I don’t meet too many people like that anymore. My fault, probably: I need to get out more. It’s not good for academics to consort only with other academics.

I wonder, though, to what degree the lack of degree seekers at Ross’ high school has to do with the soaring cost of higher education. Are these rural Californians skipping college because they can’t make the grade, or because they can’t make the payments?  

California residents now pay about $13,000 a year to attend a UC school. (Penn State’s in-state tuition is even higher: about $17,000 per year.) Getting my master’s degree at UCLA during the Carter administration cost me $750.

Incurring a massive amount of debt might be worth it if your degree leads to a high-paying, satisfying career. But if you wind up with a job that isn’t much better than the jobs you can get with a high school diploma and you’re not in college for the sheer joy of it all, it probably isn’t worth it.

The problem is, these under-educated job seekers become the frustrated voters who are susceptible to the messages of a Donald Trump – the kind who sit on their hands when the gay valedictorian calls on his classmates to reject the xenophobic bumper sticker.  

Or is that the pronouncement of a guy who needs to get out more?



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled ÔÇťAmong the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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