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Paul Burri: Earning a College Degree in Only 43 Years

Life slowed but couldn't stop the dream of pursuing a higher education

As you can imagine, this is a long story. I’ll try to condense it.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

P.S. 94, Bronx, N.Y., grades 1 through 6, average student.
P.S. 80, Bronx, N.Y., grades 7 through 9, average student

Now it was time to pick a high school. The closest high school was within walking distance, and it was where most students went after grammar school, although it wasn’t known to be exceptional in any way. The two other high schools on my list were Bronx High School of Science, which was very highly rated, and Brooklyn Technical High School, rated as the best in the country at the time.

Bronx High School of Science was about a half-hour by bus from my house. Brooklyn Tech (as we called it) was 1½ hours by bus and subway from my house. Both required passing a stringent entrance exam for admission. I passed both exams.

After considerable discussion with my parents, I chose Brooklyn Tech and spent three-plus hours traveling there every day for four years. I graduated in June 1947.

Now which college? Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering in New York City was an old (former President Abraham Lincoln spoke there once) and little-known college. But in spite of its “low profile,” it was still a very highly rated college. And it was free if you could pass its entrance exam, which was an eight-hour ordeal. There was no passing grade on the exam. The school simply selected the top 120 exam scores and that was the freshman class.

I was one of the lucky students accepted, and I began my college education in September 1947. Because of family illness, family financial problems and a certain amount of emotional insecurity — I just wasn’t ready for college at the time — I dropped out of school after less than one year.

Fast forward to 1953. I was just discharged from the Army after serving two years. I was married with a young daughter, living in North Hollywood and working six days a week in Los Angeles as a machinist. I was eager to become an engineer and earn some big bucks.

I started taking night classes at Los Angeles Community College in the San Fernando Valley carrying 12 units — four nights a week. I was in a hurry to get my degree. I did this for about 3½ years until the grueling schedule started to affect my marriage. For the next few years, I eased back to only two nights a week.

After about five years of night school, I completed all of the lower-division classes needed for my degree, and it was decision time. To continue, I would need to take day classes at a four-year engineering college and try to find a night job to support my family. By this time, I was made the foreman at work and fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — I was earning too much to afford to give that up for a low-paying night job at some gas station.

Fast forward again to 1985 and two important things had happened. One was that several schools had begun to offer upper-level college courses allowing working people to get a degree at night. Two, I was working for Northrop Grumman in Newberry Park, and the company would subsidize my college education.

I applied to the University of Phoenix, was accepted and began night school all over again. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in January 1990.

Voila! I graduated high school in 1947, and graduated college in 1990 — a college degree in only 43 years.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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