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Don Cunningham: College Admissions Scandal Underscores Nation’s Educational Challenges

By Don Cunningham on April 12, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on April 10, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

The recent college admission cheating scandal made me think of my dad.

Not the scandal part. He lives in south Florida, scandal-free.

A former steelworker, he spent a lifetime in Bethlehem. Upon retiring, he and my stepmom moved to Florida.

Fortunately, for the family name, he’s far too … frugal … to spring for a special massage in a strip center like some of the state’s better known senior citizens allegedly did. To know my dad is to be certain no one could coax him into paying extra for anything.

This is a guy who knows when it’s free coffee day at Panera Bread.

“Donny, it’s unbelievable,” he said in our kitchen during their visit home, “you just show them your Panera card and they give you free coffee.”

Not surprisingly, he found out the same deal could be had at the Panera on Route 512. He and my stepmom went every morning for a week, ignoring the equally free pot of bean-ground coffee I make daily.

So when I heard about the Hollywood parents who spent more than $1 million to get their kids into college, I laughed.

It took me back 36 years to my own college admission process.

No one in the Cunningham family had gone to college. They were steelworkers and tradesmen. For some reason, however, my dad was intent on my younger sister and I breaking the cycle. Maybe my mom planted the seed. She graduated first in her class of 1,000 students at Liberty High School in 1964.

She didn’t go to college, however. They got married six months out of high school. I was born a year later while they were just 19. She was gone by 33.

It was in my dad’s hands. From junior high school on, he made clear I was to go to college. He didn’t want me doing what he did, pouring hot metal in the ingot mold foundry. It was dirty and hot.

I never paid much attention to it. No one ever explained what college was or why you had to go. In the early 1980s, Bethlehem Steel was still hiring steelworkers.

Crunch time came senior year in 1982. I thought he’d forget. He didn’t. I’m not sure why, but I applied to LaSalle College in Philadelphia. I got in. My senior yearbook proudly proclaims I’d be attending there in the fall.

That spring my dad found out how much LaSalle cost. Turns out, I wouldn’t be attending there. He said a guy in the mill had a son going to a place called Shippensburg. He could afford that. He said to apply there.

I got in. Sight unseen, I showed up at freshmen orientation. No campus tours. No bribes, false transcripts or paid preparation. All I had was a middling SAT score and an edict from my father. A bit unorthodox, but his was a much better way to help.

Not only did I go where he could afford but I went where I was qualified and could succeed.

The parents bribing their ill-qualified children’s way into name universities have no sense of a parent’s role. Their actions aren’t for their kids but for themselves. Appearance means more to them than substance, and clearly no bridge is too far to keep up appearances.

My sister graduated high school two years after me. Her path was simpler. “You’ll be going to Shippensburg,” he told her. “Donny is already there. He can watch over you and drive you there.”

One application. No campus tour necessary.

Shippensburg is a state school. During my time, it cost $3,500 per year for room and board. I got a campus job to pay for anything else.

My college education cost my dad $14,000. I’m forever grateful to him for paying for it and, even more so, for requiring it. I left with no loans and a new beginning.

My youngest son graduated last May from Parsons School of Design in New York City. Just one semester with room and board was $32,000, more than double the cost of my entire four years.

I’m grateful for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and those who support it for investing in the education of blue-collar kids, providing an affordable, quality education that trained me for a new economy.

While I was in college, steelworker jobs began to disappear, along with others in heavy industry.

The world keeps turning. Today the economy is creating jobs in manufacturing and industry that require technical skills but not necessarily four years of college. My father’s adage of needing a college education needs to be modified today.

Our children need the skills and the knowledge that the economy of today and tomorrow requires. Some of that can be gained in high school vocational and technical schools and community colleges, also a great pathway to a four-year degree.

Today’s biggest educational challenge is cost and the inability of working families to pay for it. The result is kids starting careers saddled with enormous debt.

Something has gone wrong. Most families struggle to afford college, often borrowing beyond what is needed or wise, while the wealthy and entitled spend whatever it takes — even cheating and breaking the law — to ensure that their under-performing children retain their status and wealth.

While there’s no simple answer, I recommend that some of these folks spend a few mornings with my old man at Panera. He’d straighten them out. I hear free coffee week is just around the corner.

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