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MIT: Does a free T-shirt come with the $50K tuition?

I’ve spent the last 10 days with my son Zack on the traditional high school junior rite of passage: the college roadie. Personally, I only applied to one school. Ever. I’m a Bruin – born at the hospital, bachelors, masters, doctorate and a current lecturer. I’ve gone nowhere in life. Literally.

So for me, the roadie was an opportunity to capture lost youth, or just feel really old because I have a son that will be in college soon. Like every other west side parent, I think my child is extraordinary. Only, Zack really is!!

Seriously, how many other kids out there are interested in the same field as their parents?  His interests are the environment, Biology (especially marine) and engineering. Right now, the apple is still on the tree and doesn’t seem ready to fall any time soon.

We travelled from Dartmouth to Brown to Princeton to Duke to Cornell and MIT. I went in to the road trip with the hopes that Zack would hate them all because of the price tag associated with every one of them. I know, the days of $225 a quarter tuition at UCLA are long gone, but $50K a year for college?  Do you get an electron microscope with that? Or at least a “free” t-shirt?

As luck would have it, Zack loved the schools. It didn’t help that the weather was perfect and the cherry trees were in bloom on nearly every campus. Not exactly Ithaca or Hanover in January. Also, the students and faculty were so nice and willing to take some unscheduled time to talk to a high schooler. And I’m not talking about the Ken and Barbie school tour guides either (creepy how perky you can be while talking about dorms, campus social life and walking backwards with 50 people).

For example, I gave a talk at the Duke marine lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. Before the talk, Zack got to speak to students about the lab and Duke and he got to speak to the lab director and other faculty. It was a great experience, but maybe they were being nice because I was giving a lecture (that finished 2 hours before tip-off of the NCAA hoops final – I’m surprised anyone showed up!).

But, the same hospitality occurred everywhere. Deans of Engineering and Bioengineering, Marine biologists and environmental science faculty, and students all took the time out of their day to regale a high school junior on the assets and strengths of their schools. By the end of the trip, I wanted to go back to school!

It was great to see that every single one of these universities has growing environmental programs with strong relationships with engineering, policy and biology departments. Just one short decade ago, you’d be hard pressed to find an undergrad  environmental science program at any college. Now they are everywhere.

The growing prevalence and importance of environmental programs gives me hope because our colleges and universities are producing educated environmental problem solvers at a pace never seen before. In my day, graduates largely ended up at environmental agencies and consulting firms. With the pace of environmental degradation and the onset of the age of environmental entrepreneurism, the opportunities for solving problems are unprecedented.

The growing number of highly educated adults in the environmental field gives me hope that we will soon have enough professionals to strongly impact all sectors of business, technology, health care, education and policy. At that time, maybe we will reach a tipping point where the vast majority of the public gets sick and tired of the continual degradation of our environmental rights and we’ll start seeing change for the better. And I’m proud to know that I have a son that will be part of that change, no matter what he chooses to pursue.

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