- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Reading reports of stratospheric tuition costs in prestige American universities like Stanford, Harvard and Columbia, I remembered my first meeting during the Reagan years with a young Stanford student, whom we will call Ludmilla, and how she saved her parents a bundle.

Ludmilla’s family had been allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. Her mathematician father got a professorship at an Arkansas university in a town where she finished high school. Her grades were good enough to get her into Stanford University.

Like most Russian political emigres, Ludmilla was a conservative and, like the rest of her family, an admirer of President Reagan. At Stanford, she found herself attracted to the alternative Stanford campus newspaper, the Stanford Review. She became its circulation manager, which meant she delivered bundles of papers to campus distribution centers.

One of the centers was the mailroom of the Hoover Institution, where I am a research fellow.

One afternoon she came and delivered some copies of the paper to my office. Her English was excellent and colloquial. I asked her how she was enjoying Stanford. She had only one complaint about Stanford: It was too easy on students.

Back in Moscow, she explained, she received an excellent education. Nobody paid much attention to the mandatory Leninist party propaganda teachers had to expound on given occasions during the school day. But on everything else — math, literature, language, science — the instruction was first-rate. And homework, which seems not to exist in American schools, was piled on. She frequently had to stay up past midnight to finish an assignment so it could be handed in to the teacher the next morning.

Watching television was permitted on weekends, never on school nights. Tardiness was unforgivable, and incompleted homework meant a call to the parents to come to school and explain the failure. This, said Ludmilla, meant parents ensured their children fulfilled their assignments.

None of this heavy lifting was characteristic of Ludmilla’s Arkansas high school. The homework was light, and there was plenty of time to watch TV.

What really stopped her, however, was how easy student life was at Stanford. In fact, said Ludmilla, one could easily do Stanford in three years if one worked hard. Four years meant paying an extra year’s tuition. She was going to do it in three years, even though she was carrying a load of courses in information sciences and the higher mathematics. She was hoping for a Silicon Valley job after graduation.

Could one really do Stanford in three years? One evening as the invited speaker at an engineering fraternity house dinner, I asked the audience if it were possible to do Stanford in three years as Ludmilla had said. The answer was unanimous: Of course it was possible. Then I asked why don’t you all do it in three years instead of four? Replied one of the future engineers with a big grin: “It’s more fun doing it in four.”

But an extra year means an extra year’s tuition cost that today runs at about $31,000, room and board included. So what? In other words, if college students concentrated on their studies and took a full load of courses, they could emerge in three years with diplomas, prepared for the outside world of employment. I believe one could graduate from any American university in three instead of four years.

Ludmilla dropped in on me a few years after her three-year graduation. She had a well-paying job in Silicon Valley and planned to set up her own software business in a year or so.

I haven’t heard from Ludmilla in a long time but she saved her family a bundle by doing what came naturally to her — three years instead of four.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is author of “Anti-American Myths: Their Causes and Consequences.”

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