Work or go to college? Both!

A 1962 SMU alumnus says he worked and went to school, and graduated debt free.

Over the past year, there has been a growing uproar over how to pay for a college education in these hard economic times, and who should pay those costs. We now have thousands of demonstrators shouting for the government to step in and force banks and other financial agencies to simply “forgive” those huge debts that have been piled up in the name of higher education.

Though discussion of college cost problems grow louder and more crude, little has been said about how and why those mountains of debt were generated in the first place, and there is no sign of agreement about how to resolve this issue. Far too many of those demanding “free” education in the form of “forgiven” debts have spent those huge sums of money borrowed for a less than useful education when it comes to employment or self-support of any reasonable sort. Study/degree fields like art appreciation, musical history and sex-habits of sea turtles may be of valid value for science and hobby interests, but rarely provide a living for seekers or their families.

We need to insist that education lead to at least the ability to support the individual and his/her family in spite of personal interests and goals.

Despite claims to the contrary, college costs were equally difficult in the past. When I graduated high school and was determined to be the first from my own family to attend college, those costs were a serious problem. I had worked for two years to save as much money as possible while a teenaged part-time worker, but quickly learned that my meager savings would not even get me into a two-year junior college, much less get me through to my goal of a four-year degree. I was willing to work, but despair was avoided only because a local university had begun an experimental new idea of payment called the “Co-operative Education Program,” or Co-op for short.

Southern Methodist University is one of the most expensive schools in North Texas, but this co-op plan dangled a carrot of opportunity before me. It worked as follows: Two students held a single job, with one going to work while the other went to classes. After eight weeks (half of a semester), these two students switched places. The classroom had a student for the whole semester, and the supporting employer had a trainable, serious student on the job at all times.

We went year-round and took five years to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. But when we graduated at the end of that fifth year, we had traded an extra year of school for two solid years of career-related job experience to use in seeking a full-time career after graduation.

The plan worked so well that SMU required all engineering students to join this co-op plan as a degree requirement. We never had much spending money, but we also didn’t have to create student loans to pay for school. I graduated broke, but debt-free.

SMU only offered this co-op plan for engineering students, and that is a puzzle to me. It worked well, and I would gladly do it again, even if I had the money, because the valuable on-the-job training truly multiplied the value and learning from our classroom teaching.

Colleges across the land should consider establishing some form of this co-op style education, and it should work well in any chosen degree-related field of study. Let’s get students “co-oping” instead of diving into debt.

Lee Wilson of Garland is a licensed professional engineer who graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1962. His email address is