Returning to His Alma Mater 50 Years Later, the President Gets a Mixed Report Card
Two weeks ago, when he returned to his alma mater, Illinois’s Eureka College, Ronald Reagan (class of ’32) was filled with feelings of “great pleasure and warm nostalgia.” His commencement address, which caught the world’s attention with its measured challenge to Moscow on nuclear arms reduction, was in part devoted to college reminiscences. He fondly recalled the football games of his youth on the tranquil rural campus, expressed regret that he hadn’t studied hard enough to boost his average out of the C range, and credited Eureka with giving him the opportunity to work his way through college even after the Great Depression hit midway through his undergraduate career. “This school made it possible for young men and women, myself included, to get an education,” he told the 86-member graduating class, “even though we were totally without funds, our families destitute victims of the Depression. Everything that is good in my life began here.”
For several of his listeners, however, the message rang a bit hollow. When Reagan worked his way through Eureka as a cafeteria dishwasher, his critics noted, the school was still a Disciples of Christ college with modest tuition, room and board charges of $450. Today, although Eureka still receives church contributions, student costs have gone up to $5,975, which, even adjusted for inflation, is about twice what Reagan paid. Many students now rely on a combination of parental contributions, part-time jobs, scholarships and loans to meet that hefty price, and the fear at Eureka this year is that if proposed cuts in federal and state loans pass Congress, some will have trouble staying in school. “Reagan did all these cuts too fast,” says Mary Correa, whose daughter Maritza’s aid has been reduced and who has recently been forced by her husband’s illness to take a second job. “I don’t think much of him.” Concurs a student: “It’s one thing to admire how Reagan worked his way through school and all that. It’s another to do it today.”
The problem of paying for college in the ’80s has hit home for Greg Bange, a 19-year-old junior from Homer, Ill. “I chose Eureka because when I started it was one of the less expensive small schools,” he says. The son of a sporting goods store employee who earns about $20,000 a year, Bange put together an aid package—including a state scholarship and a federal loan—that enabled him to pay for tuition and lodging at the President’s old fraternity, TKE. Summer work and a loan from his grandparents have carried him until now, but Bange, a psychology major who says he admires Reagan, still needs all the student aid he is getting to stay in school. “My parents wonder what Reagan would say if he were asked what he would do in a similar situation,” Bange muses.
About 60 percent of Eureka’s 439 students receive some form of financial aid, and for some of them the President’s program will lead to cuts that could average $1,250 per year. George Hearne, the dean of admissions, fears that the economic crunch may cut into the number and diversity of Eureka’s students. “We don’t want to see a situation where we only get students from affluent families,” he says. “And we will clearly have to ask our alumni to contribute more.” The school has already approached its most famous graduate for a gift; although Reagan has long supported the school financially, Hearne won’t reveal what the President has contributed. The school has started several fund drives, including one for a $2 million Reagan scholarship program to help its struggling students. “We are doing everything we can to see that no student suffers or is forced to leave the school if it can be avoided,” Hearne says. “But there is no doubt that, in a situation like this, some students will be hurt.”
Despite the complaints, the prevailing attitude toward Reagan’s policies is surprisingly supportive at Eureka, even among students most dependent on targeted aid programs. Sophomore Kelley Munyon, 19, of Warrensburg, Ill. says if her annual $2,500 federal loan is cut, “I’ll just work all that much harder.” She already puts in a 6 a.m.-to-midnight schedule six days a week, squeezing study and classes around her job in the student cafeteria near the one where Reagan once washed dishes. “It’s worth it because I love it here,” she says. “I see kids who come here from a larger city and some of them can’t stand it. They say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to do here but go to the Dairy Queen.’ But I come from a town that doesn’t even have a Dairy Queen.”
Eric McClain, 20, one of the college’s 70 minority students, has already been hurt by Reagan’s cuts. The son of a cook and an unemployed construction worker, McClain, a junior, has seen his $1,500 student loan reduced by $250—and the President’s proposed budget could cost him an $800 federal grant. But McClain, a deeply religious Baptist, is not bitter. “At first I guess I was angry at Reagan, but I never really felt it was his fault,” he says. “I think in something like this, some people are going to suffer, but the hope is it will benefit others in the long run.” Pat Renkes, who won’t be back for his junior year in the fall because of cuts in his student aid, agrees: “I’ve studied some economics and I think that the economy is basically cyclical and beyond the control of one President. Some people get caught at times, and there’s not much the President can do. I guess it’s just me this time who got caught.”
That admirably selfless perspective helps explain why so few students joined the tiny, hastily organized demonstration against Reagan’s visit. “College students don’t demonstrate anymore,” observes Greg Bange. “Besides, that would never happen at Eureka. It would be too rude.”