By Gordon Hughes

Somehow, I was convinced by old fraternity brothers that heading up a reunion committee for the founding brothers of Zeta Epsilon chapter of Theta Chi would be both easy and fun. Well, fun yes. But from 3,000 miles away, easy?

My university is in Southern California, where I am originally from, but I’m now living in New York City. I am a product of what was perhaps the best public school educational system in America at the time. My K-12 experience within that system spanned post-war, late 1940s into the 50ss. Then, there was college and that’s where my fraternity reunion story begins.

Like most students studying at the California State University, I worked my way through college just like the undergraduates I met at our reunion are doing today. There is one huge difference from then and now. Cost, yes cost. I was able to pay as I went and had no need for loans. That is surely not the way it is today.

I don’t want to get political in this column, but there was a recent presidential candidate who thought ‘post-high school,’ trade schools, community two-year colleges and even State Colleges and Universities should be free. That set off many a contentious conversation around kitchen tables and water coolers. Now, there is a saying “everything old is new again” so this idea of free post-high school education was and is not new.

That said, most Americans don’t know their history and since I was a history major, every now and then I can appear to be rather erudite at cocktail parties when historical topics arise. So, about post K-12 in United States educational history during the American Civil War. President Lincoln and congress passed the Morrill Land Grant College Act in 1862. The goal was to “establish colleges nationwide at no cost and to make them available to the working class.” Not a bad idea, especially during a war. In 1916, Congress legislated and expanded that act to make colleges more available to citizens and basically free.

I know this, not only from my studies, but that my father traveled from Boston, where he lived, to Alabama to take advantage of that program. He attended the University of Alabama at no cost during the Depression. As a matter of fact, in 1944 prior to the end of World War Two, the “GI Bill” was passed. Congress adopted the bill to further educate returning veterans, primarily men, for two reasons: first to prepare these vets for upwardly mobile careers and to slow the number of men entering the work force.

Eight million men from the armed services signed up for college and trade schools and about four million graduated. This was again at no charge to the students. At the time, about 3.9 percent of the U.S. population had graduated from college compared to today’s 38 percent in 2021. The year I graduated in 1966, college grads in the U.S. were only 7.7 percent. My mom went to St Mary’s in Joliet, Illinois on a scholarship and it was unusual that two folks from that era would be college grads. That brings me to my college career. I was putting myself through school and, back in those days, I could go to a two-year community college for $12 a semester plus books, live at home and work to save up for two years of school at a state university which cost $58 a semester plus books and living expenses. Those expenses included my fraternity dues. Suffice to say, it was basically free, and I incurred no debt. Most students had not heard of college tuition loans back then. Try that in today’s educational environment.

Today, due to skyrocketing tuitions three things are occurring: One and perhaps worst of all, parents and students are questioning the need for a college degree. This while China is graduating 10.76 million yearly compared to four million in the USA in 2021. Two, cost and loan payback are albatrosses around the necks of students for years after graduation. Three, public colleges and universities are turning into businesses not just educational institutions. Students are paying the fees and many of these institutions don’t care where the money comes from: whether it’s students working, parents paying, scholarships or loans, as long as it comes, those fees will keep rising.

Now let me get off that soap box and talk about my reunion. In my fraternity graduating class we had three brothers who were Olympic athletes, a professor at John’s Hopkins University, several college deans, and one guy who snuck into the lot at Universal Studios where he directed an episode of the Twilight Zone with Joan Crawford because no one wanted to work with her. So, Steven Spielberg, yes that Steven Spielberg, stepped in and had his first directorial experience. One brother in his junior year bought a train tanker car full of corn for one cent on the dollar. He bought the tanker full of corn, and had the brothers load it onto a dump truck which he then drove to East Los Angeles and sold it to a tortilla factory and restaurants. Amazing! He is still doing that kind of thing today and making a few bucks more than he did back then.

Of course, then there is me, a Broadway investor/producer who had a 25-year career at CBS before Broadway. During the evening, all attendees of our fraternity reunion got to tell their stories and each one was interesting and diverse. These young men, now grown men had all traveled in such different directions. They had come together to share their stories. A marvelous evening. And you know that evening never could have occurred without attending college.

Gordon T. Hughes ll is Partner & Producer with DFB Productions LLC since 2010. Prior to that he was with CBS TV Stations for 25 years and President CEO of American Business Media.