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Russell Frank: I'll Ski U in My Dreams

by on September 23, 2011 4:00 AM

It's college application season once again at my house as the youngest of my three children squeezes in a few more campus visits before he writes The Essay and settles on his safe schools and stretch schools.

My son actually knows where he wants to go: Ski U – that is, any school that is close to the slopes. This drives some members of his advisory board crazy. Says the sister who's heading into the home stretch of her own college career (hallelujah!): You don't choose a school based on how close it is to skiing!

But our applicant figures, why not? There are good schools everywhere; why not pick one with ready access to good powder?

That pretty much ruled out the schools we visited in Ohio. Our tour guide at Kenyon (motto: "Paul Newman took up acting when we kicked him off our football team") looked at me funny when I asked her where people ski in these parts. Her answer, after she thought about it a bit, was that they wait until the winter and spring breaks and head for places with actual mountains.

I have since learned that there are in fact ski resorts in Ohio, but I'm pretty sure my son is ready for something a bit grander than the Buckeye version of Tussey Mountain. Colorado, perhaps.

The cool thing about Colorado College is that you take one class at a time, for three-and-a-half weeks. As the college promotes it: "Want to study for your biology midterm without worrying about filming your documentary, reading 72 pages of The Odyssey, or training your psychology rat? Stop spreading yourself too thin."

One of the classes, taught by an old grad school chum, is called Rio Grande — Culture, History, and Region. As I understand it, the class consists of one long camping trip along the river. Sign me up.

What I like best about Colorado College has nothing to do with academics or skiing, though. My sister and her three (and soon, four) adorable grandchildren live in Denver, so for me it's a two-fer: I'd get to visit my son and my sib on one ticket.

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A couple of weeks ago, my son announced that he was getting interested in going to Penn State. This was something of a bombshell. His mother launched into all the reasons why she thought this was a bad idea. Boiled down, her argument was that he needs to bust out of the Happy Valley bubble.

I mostly agree, but after paying what my dad would call a heavy dollar to educate my daughters at fancy women's colleges in Massachusetts, the idea of finally taking advantage of the fabulous 75 percent off employee discount on PSU tuition has its appeal.

If only this place had some kind of reciprocal arrangement with other institutions – other Big Ten schools, say – whereby faculty and staff could get a tuition break at any of the participating universities.

This is not some kind of Groucho Marx complex, by the way, where I disdain Penn State precisely because it hired a bozo like me. (The Groucho quote is "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." Astute readers will note that I've managed to work Groucho into this column for the second consecutive week.)

Penn State's great, but it would be nice for kids who grew up in its shadow to experience someplace else. I've long had the sense that for the blue-white bleeders who run this joint, Dear Old State is so self-evidently wonderful that the thought that someone might want to go to Ann Arbor or Madison simply doesn't occur to them.

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The other option, for someone who seems more interested in skiing than schooling, is to take a year off. Gap-year advocates note that too many kids go straight from high school to college without ever thinking about what they want to get out of the experience. They're not saying kids should know what they want to study – nothing wrong with figuring that out once you get here and do some exploring – only that they should know that they want to study.

As it is, we have this weird system where parents voluntarily fork over a heavy dollar for an education their children don't actually want.

College has become the default choice. It's the next station on the line and it's where everyone else is getting off, so you may as well get off, too. Applying to schools is easy. Figuring out how to spend a gap year would be harder.

But I'd be a happier instructor and a happier tuition-paying parent if I felt like my students and my children were in school because they wanted an education and not just because they needed a diploma.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. 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. 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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