What a 53-year-old journalist found when he went back to the U

Loved this school. But the Starbucks was odd. Brauer in one of his study nooks: Anodyne Coffeehouse (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Back in January, MinnPost media writer David Brauer announced publicly that at 53, he was heading back to the University of Minnesota to finish the degree he’d started more than 30 years ago.

Brauer had made a few pit stops on his trip through higher ed. He spent three semesters at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s, but became disillusioned with the upper-class, Type-A vibe there and dropped out.

Later he was drawn to the University of Minnesota‘s relaxed attitude toward part-time students, so he took classes there in the early 1980s while waiting tables and writing freelance articles.

In 1985 — when he was just two classes shy of earning his degree in political science — he dropped out to take a half-time job in journalism.

This year, in three MinnPost pieces, Brauer — who’s now on hiatus from his job — described the shame of never having told his parents he’d dropped out of college, the irony of having to take a freshman writing course despite his decades of journalism experience, and the experience of being in class with students young enough to be his children.

Now I can wear the family college ring. (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

He recently graduated — with an impressive overall GPA of 3.83 — so I sat down with him to see what he thought about college and how it has changed.

Here are some highlights from our talk.

On having been a part-time student:

“I’m a textbook case for why the U should crack down on part-time and sporadic students, because I didn’t finish. … But for me at the time it was perfect, because I was never in debt. I paid as I went.”

Why he dropped out so close to earning a degree:

“It got to the point where my life was interesting enough, and I was doing what I wanted to do, that the degree — as a box to check — became superfluous. I was learning more [on the job than in class]. I was just ready to move on. … I don’t regret that decision.”

His resume:

“The first couple of resumes I filled out after I dropped out I lied on, and said that I graduated from college. I don’t think that any job came out of either of those resumes, but that was an active lie, and I’ve never felt good about that.”

The cost of his two-class semester at the U:

Exactly $3,879.64. “Student fees, man. They add up.”

Getting A’s in both classes:

“In my first student experience, I was much more interested in gaming the system and getting the A as opposed to learning the subject. This time, I was much more interested in learning and retaining that knowledge than getting the A. As it turned out, they went together.”

What he as a professional journalist learned from freshman comp:

“I’m really glad I didn’t opt out of that class. The act of being in that class, where I was a peer of 18- and 19-year-olds, was as rich an educational experience than anything I was taught in class. We had to listen to each other’s writing and critique each other’s writing. That was tremendous.”

On the typical concerns of his classmates:

“Money definitely came up. … But it wasn’t a constant or even No. 1 topic of conversation. … Their big concern was: “What this was going to lead to. What kind of job am I going to get?”

How this university experience differed from his stint the 1980s:

“Students seem intensely more practical. Just a lot more thought had gone into what their career path was going to be. … And the average student is smarter than when I was there. That was clear. … The campus was much more diverse than when I was there. … Technology is more noticeable. It was a little astounding to me how much of what we used to call ‘reading’ is done through videos now. YouTube use, movies, documentaries were a much bigger part of both of my classes than any class I ever took [years ago].”

Whether technology in class was a distraction:

“Both of my classes the instructors discouraged the use of laptops. There were one to three students who were focusing on their laptop more than on their instructor. Everybody else was basically unplugged. That was different from the stereotype. That was a pleasant surprise.”

Whether today’s students are a coddled generation:

“I didn’t come away thinking, ‘These are spoiled children.’ I really didn’t see a lot of lazy, indulgent, time-waster kids. … I don’t want to say they don’t have all the anxieties — and a few new ones — that we had. But the self-awareness and wisdom struck me over and over and over again.”

What rubbed him the wrong way:

“The commercialization on campus. There’s a goddamned Starbuck’s in Lind Hall. They have these commercial outposts everywhere on campus now. It’s crazy. It’s like a mall, or a little food court. I also noticed the commercialization of things like TCF Bank having a place in the student union. … I understand it, because state support is dramatically smaller than when I went there. But I didn’t like it.”

How higher education has an assembly-line mentality:

“I’m lamenting the lack of educational diversity — that every school now is racing to get all their kids through on time, on budget, in four years. And not everybody is built that way. It boggles my mind that school is what — 20 times more expensive now? — and yet you’re expected to race through it. … I lived a completely different reality, and I’d like other people to be able to do that with a little more discipline than I showed.”

On the difficulty of the two courses:

“I worked hard. I don’t think I breezed through them. I did all the frigging reading in advance. I watched all the videos. And you know what was amazing? It was so much easier and so much more fun and so much more deep and it feels more lasting. … I was ready for a life of the mind at 53 in a way I was absolutely not earlier.”

How this last semester at the U has influenced how he’s helping his teenage son with his own college search:

“The trick is going to a place where you can be most open to the education they’re offering. I know what that feels like — and I didn’t know what that felt like the first time, because I was just checking boxes. I never really loved college until this time. … And it’s a little easier to help someone’s search for love when you’ve experienced love. I think that’s a big plus. And my kid reminds me of the kids I had in class.”