The Price of Pretension



"And where are you going to school?"

I avoided the dreaded question like the plague my senior year in high school, but it inevitably crept into every conversation as graduation day loomed on the horizon. My friends, my parents' friends and my friends' parents all were anxious to learn where I would spend the next four years of my life - and invariably were disappointed when they eventually learned.

In my town, college isn't merely the next logical step after high school or a transitional stage before entering the workforce or only the means to a degree. College is the end-all-be-all of existence. And where one attends college is what defines him or her for all eternity - the badge of honor or dishonor forever branded on his or her chest.

Amy Smith was no longer the Amy who lived down the street from you or played tennis on the varsity team but Amy Smith who was going to Brown University. Brian Thomson was no longer the Brian who worked at the corner deli and was once arrested for smoking pot, but suddenly morphed into Adam Thomson who was going to Yale.

I became Liz who was going to UB - University of Baltimore? University of Boston? ... oh, University at Buffalo. Instead of receiving congratulations or even a good-natured "good luck" when I informed people of my college choice, the common response was, "Isn't it cold out there?" or "Buffalo - doesn't it snow in August there?" or "you'd better invest in some snow shoes!" accompanied by the condescending laugh I grew to loath.

I felt like a failure. While many of my classmates headed off to big-name schools with century-old prestige and first-tier rankings, I prepared for four years at that public university at the end of the thruway where the Lake Effect is a persistent reality.

I spent my freshman year at UB wallowing in self-pity, cursing my friends from home attending designer schools with trillion-dollar endowments, groomed campuses steeped in tradition and $35,000 price-tags. UB's academic spine is not accented by creeping ivy or 200-year old stone edifices nor do commissioned portraits of former presidents or distinguished alumni in gold frames adorn the walls of the crowded hallways in Knox, Clemens, or Baldy.

Despite the university's ongoing, multi-million dollar facelift, UB can never compete with the historic magnificence of Dartmouth, the grandeur of Georgetown University or the rolling hills of Swarthmore. While the original buildings on South maintain their classic elegance, the North Campus was clearly designed with function and expedience - not charm or aesthetics - in mind.

UB's alumni roster does not boast former U.S. presidents or current Senate members. While notables such as Miramax President Harvey Weinstein and CNN's Wolf Blitzer are among the ranks of UB grads, we cannot compete with the laundry lists of famous alumni at Yale, Princeton, or Harvard - the so-called ruling triumvirate of higher education.

College rankings such as the Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report perpetuate the widely-held believe that expensive private schools trump public universities in terms of academics, quality of life and overall educational value.

Basically, they feed the myth that you get what you pay for. UB students get an $11,000 education while our counterparts at the nation's elite institutions are the beneficiaries of a $30,000-plus education.

While I was studying at Georgetown University this summer, a Georgetown student from my hometown asked me what it was like to go to school with "dumb people." I was speechless, shocked by her ignorance and blatant elitism. I felt like responding, "What's it like to go to school with rich people?"

When you strip private schools of their designer labels, Ivy League reputations, stone-and-marble campuses and famous alumni you are left with the staples of a college education which can be found at UB, at a fraction of the cost. Like any school, UB has its share of lackluster courses, research-oriented professors, large lectures which may as well be cross-listed as naptime and bureaucratic red-tape.

But we also boast a 24,000-plus diverse student body, majors in countless fields, impressive research facilities, cutting-edge computing technology, professors distinguished for their scholarly endeavors as well as their teaching ability and a degree which we won't spend the remainder of our lives paying off student loans to obtain.

In this sense, UB is like the Geo Prism. While its market price is considerably below that of the Toyota Corolla, the Geo contains the same engine as its more expensive counterpart. When you purchase a Toyota you are paying not only for the vehicle's tangibles, but also for the name-brand, much like UB's high-priced alternatives.

That doesn't mean I don't have gripes with UB.

In the coming months you will hear me, and most likely my fellow editors and writers, complain, criticize, attack, object and question. Like many other people, I refuse to be satisfied by the status quo. While some may equate such persistent examination and criticism with pessimism or cynicism, I think it represents the eternally optimistic belief that everything can be improved upon - that our current situation could always be better.

Without constant vigilance it is too easy to accept things as they are and to resign ourselves to mediocrity. And with a public university constrained by political considerations, state support and limited financial resources, such vigilance becomes even more crucial.

With that said, UB truly is a great educational value.

Now, when my friends brag about their respective universities I simply laugh to myself, knowing that in a few years we will all be in the real world with a degree hanging above our office desks, the only difference being that I will leave college debt-free. Who appear to be the smart ones now?