Reflecting on the Public School Experience

I recently received an invitation for an annual fundraising event at my alma mater, the University of Iowa.  Looking at the invitation, it reminded me of how I strongly believe in the value of public education. John Kenneth Galbraith called public education an “investment in man”. I’m grateful for the investment that was made in me, yet I also feel the payoffs of investment in, and the receipt of, quality public education are under-recognized and undervalued.

Before I continue: discussion of higher education in America is fraught with conversational landmines and mythmaking. Rather than set public and private against each other, I want to talk about why I went the public route. To cut to the chase: if you or your kids are going to an Ivy, that’s great. I don’t begrudge that and I don’t have a single problem with that choice.  What I want is for public higher education to be given its due credit, and public graduates to be given appropriate respect for their choice.  In this post, I’m exploring my experience with my education.  I know others with similar stories. This is a side of higher education that doesn’t get enough print or airtime.

Here’s what I have a problem with: I have a problem with relatively small differences between public and private higher education being overblown, and assumptions being made about graduates’ capabilities based solely or largely on their school. I have a problem with employers dismissing resumes largely or solely based on an applicants’ lack of a elite school’s degree.  Additionally, I have no time to hear or read about a false narrative of equal opportunity access between these two streams of education.  I hear that any kid who is bright enough can get into a private school and be adequately funded: this is false. I hear about kids in huge classes receiving mediocre undergraduate educations in public colleges, and about immersive foreign language programs in private schools, and very little in between. Most live somewhere in the middle.

My story is about living in the middle, being educated in the middle, and ultimately getting what I needed to achieve in corporate America. I share this as a testimony that success is possible, even without an Ivy degree. I share this because smart kids… frequently don’t go to an Ivy.  Often, they have made the very adult calculation that the debt accrued by heading to a private college, or the out-of-town college, is flatly not responsible or a wise investment.  Which adolescent is smarter?  The one who takes on thousands of extra dollars in a belief that a private college is necessary?  Or the one who sucks it up and makes the more cautious choice for public, in-state tuition?  Which demonstrates more critical thinking?  Which capacity for personal judgment would you want to have in your employment?

I had a chat about college with a friend who works in a service occupation. In-state tuition at the University of Illinois is currently between $15,000 and $20,000, a far cry from the $2,000 at the University of Iowa twenty years ago. My friend has been saving for a couple of years to buy his wife a ’67 Camaro for his wife to mark their twentieth anniversary. They’re cheaper than you think if you’re not looking for mint condition. Last fall their basement flooded, their furniture left, air fans and repairmen came, and now every time he heads down to the rec room he thinks: this is my Camaro. This is life in the middle; the stories that play themselves out again and again, all over the country. In the same conversation, my friend told me that tuition at the University of Missouri is 10K after you establish in-state residency (one year). Technically my friend’s kids have every option available, but the financial implications are huge. Meanwhile, the rather slim differences between a great public and an Ivy are being trumped up and magnified, not only by the parents of Ivy students but also by the media.

Even when we hear about the middle, the narrative is that equal opportunity is available for all. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, they say:

If you’re in the private system, you know something most Americans don’t – many private colleges and universities offer generous need-based financial aid packages to talented students with limited resources.

The message is that the private path is the only way to true success. Yet study after study has shown that it’s the kid more than the school that determines success. A kid capable of attending and succeeding at an Ivy and choosing to go somewhere else has pretty much the same shot at “success” as the Ivy kids. The only thing that gets in the way is optics, leading to privileged access. Further, in our increasingly globalized society, students who go to international universities are distorted by the same fun house mirror even though the (usually publicly funded) schools they went to are outstanding. The value of education is being dictated by branding. Even in spite of this, it’s not crazy to choose to go to a public school over a private school. When the tradeoff is years of debt for marginal utility, the choice is often obvious.

Here’s how it went for me.

My education has always been in the public classroom setting.  I went to a public high school in a small Iowa town of around 30,000 with a graduating class of around 300. In high school we read Chaucer and Hesse, we built wind tunnels, we had band and debate and Model UN. They taught us to think. Many of my teachers were excellent. The educational climate in that school was matter-of-fact and earnest: educating our kids in this way is what we do. It wasn’t perfect in the sense that my every need was not catered to. In my junior high years I learned to code, spending countless hours hacking away but when I reached high school I found that there were no computer classes. The Christmas when my aunt and uncle gave our family an Apple IIe, my life was transformed.  In college, I realized that many of my fellow math majors had already taken calculus and were ahead of me for no good reason.  I did not receive a perfect education; it had areas of excellence and areas of weakness.  That’s life in the middle.

I received a tuition scholarship to the University of Iowa because I was poor and because my grades and test scores demonstrated that I was smart. When I arrived at U of I, I was met with a campus of thirty thousand kids, countless buildings, a giant book filled with course listings. I was assigned an academic adviser, whom I visited once for about thirty minutes after I had already figured out what I wanted to take. There wasn’t a whole lot for us to talk about.  I didn’t expect much else; that’s life in the middle. I ended up in several huge “intro” courses with hundreds of students (Physics, Calculus, Computer Science) as well as smaller discussion oriented courses (Rhetoric, European Conquest and Colonization, French). I was well-prepared intellectually but I had no idea what to do and no guide to lead me.

A pivotal moment in my educational life came when I took an Intro to Numerical Optimization course, largely because I knew they used Mathematica and it was cross-listed in CS and Math (I was a double major). The instructor, Florian Potra, was by turns erudite, charismatic, rambling and cutting. I loved him, and I loved the course, so when he mentioned he was looking for an undergrad research assistant, I was all in. My academic life changed that summer: long afternoons and evenings in Florian’s office, sitting at the chalkboard while Florian and one of his grad students worked out new formulations, and endless hours in the library and computer lab reading papers and writing code. College suddenly transformed from the breadth of chess, where anything is possible but the game ultimately cannot be conquered, to checkers, a narrow but bottomless well where the goal is to plumb deeper and deeper until we finally hit bottom and obtain complete understanding of all there is to know. I loved it.

My undergraduate experience carried over into graduate school, where I began to find my own intellectual voice. Eighteen months in, Florian left to take the chair at the University of Maryland. My new adviser was Kurt Anstreicher. Kurt was a whip-smart, calming presence whose intensity exceeded my own. We put an unsolved combinatorial optimization problem from 1968 in our sights, and using a combination of chess and checkers thinking we took it down. He taught me that it takes persistence, creative thinking, and partnership to achieve big goals.

I graduated with no debt, a little money in my pocket, unpolished, no connections, but with an offer to work at Microsoft. I defended my thesis on a Friday, got on a plane to Seattle on a Saturday, and started work on a Monday. Fifteen years later, I have filled executive roles in world class companies, leading talented teams working to solve mission critical problems for businesses around the world. I am proud of the public school education that led me to where I am. If you go to a public school, and you work hard and make connections: you can be successful.

I am painfully aware that many in our country do not experience what I experienced in the public system. This awareness is what motivates me to share my story, because I want to encourage the kind of public education I experienced – the kind that does not start and end with vocational training or positioning for the societal elite, but towards the molding of balanced, critically thinking citizens. I’d like to see us preserve and extend this model, yet I fear that it is being eaten away at both ends.

If I could say one thing to the chattering classes: equal choice in educational options is a myth, so stop judging people by where they went to school. Seriously. Stop it. Public education is not a second choice for most of us. Hard working kids choose to go to public schools. Smart kids go to public schools. Those kids become successful. I hire people, and when I do I just want to know whether the applicant can solve problems, communicate, work hard, and commit to excellence in partnership with their scholarship. I don’t care where about which school they went to. I care about what they took from it.

It’s not clear to me that I should end this with a call to action, because it’s not clear who I’m even talking to. It’s simple: many in our country are seeing their only real educational options being underfunded and undervalued. These kids, who are just as worthy and deserving as anyone else, should get their shot. They’re worth our investment.

[Thanks to those who edited and provided fantastic feedback for this post.]

Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

6 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Public School Experience”

  1. “I did not receive a perfect education; it had areas of excellence and areas of weakness. That’s life in the middle.” YES. Parents have to do some serious self-examination if they think their kids’ education should be any more or less than this.

    “If I could say one thing to the chattering classes: equal choice in educational options is a myth, so stop judging people by where they went to school. Seriously. Stop it. Public education is not a second choice for most of us. Hard working kids choose to go to public schools. Smart kids go to public schools.” YES. And anyone who openly chatters otherwise needs to examine their critical thinking skills… irregardless of where the degree on their wall is from.

    “That smart kids… frequently don’t go to an Ivy. Often, they have made the very adult calculation that the debt accrued by heading to a private college, or the out-of-town college, is flatly not responsible or a wise investment. Which adolescent is smarter? The one who takes on thousands of extra dollars in a belief that a private college is necessary? Or the one who sucks it up and makes the more cautious choice for public, in-state tuition? Which demonstrates more critical thinking?” YES.

    This is ever-more relevant as the cost of education further escalates. One of the problems we are dealing with is that higher education and kids’ choices around it are still largely being determined by a parental generation that came of age in the 1960s/70s/early 80s. During that period, higher education (public or private) was still objectively less expensive. Read a biography of any eminent mind that was educated during that period: there was travel, held up by temporary jobs (that now don’t exist); teaching assistant stints during grad school (today, getting one of those is miraculous); a sense of adventure. It’s gone now… and tuition is much higher. However, college admin and parents writing tuition checks are missing that side of the story.

    Additionally, graduates of an earlier time weren’t faced by a job market stagnated by a huge generation of baby-boomers already employed and planning to stay there. The cost of education and overall employability and economics faced by graduates from the 90′s onwards to now is a whole other story. Add in outsourcing and the escalated technological advances (even in service industries) that don’t permit as many entry-level positions.

    The game has changed. Public Education is still relevant, perhaps more than ever. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint.

  2. Great post — as a 100% public school grad (k-12, college, grad school) I agree wholeheartedly. Those companies hiring great students from great public schools are getting a great value vs. those employers dismissing resumes without a private school label.

  3. “That smart kids… frequently don’t go to an Ivy.”

    True. In fact, smart kids frequently do not have parents who want them to go to an Ivy. Read that again: not all parents of talented kids are working their tails (and bank balances) off to get them into an elite school. Which at the age of 17 or 18, you pretty much need in order to go to one. You often need tutors, always need extracurriculars, & the family investment in those. You need family investment of time, money and emotion. You need real parental desire for you to achieve that, with concrete planning and implementation. That smart kids… frequently don’t receive.

    There are plenty of smart kids down at the mall serving pizza, or at home looking after family dysfunction; these kids simply won’t be on the radar for elite higher education. They will be going to a local state school. Ask ’em about it: they probably have a lot of poised, good-natured resignation about it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of approximately equal or even less talented kids who are receiving mountains of support and will go to an elite labelled school. That’s the harsh truth.

    Thankfully, it doesn’t eliminate less-supported/pushed/propelled kids’ innate capacities for success. Those adults generally accelerate in life a bit later, when they have the relationships or (public) academic experiences that encourage them to do so. Drive doesn’t go away, IQ doesn’t melt, imagination won’t go dormant. In the meantime, they need a solid higher education given at the typical age to receive it.

    Smart kids do need public universities.

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