Nice Cheap Education

by Harry T. Roman


On this cold winter morning, I stand staring out the third floor windows of NJIT’s Guttenberg Hall, onto icy, snow-clogged Central Avenue….. watching the morning traffic lumbering along, single-file, into downtown Newark. This vantage point wasn’t here when I went to school back in the 1960s. Some old houses and stores stood where I am now, the corner of Central and Lock Street.

I am waiting for a meeting to start, to review research work at the college that I am directing for my company. For the past 3 years I have been working with professors, doctoral students and post doc researchers on this effort.

Now, on the short side of my engineering career, I am back in school so to speak, learning all sorts of new physics and microelectronics, giving lectures, teaching, and working with students. I feel the circle closing.

Before coming to this conference room, I had a leisurely breakfast with some professors I have known for many years, including some who taught me……

“Harry, stop by and give my students a lecture on the real world of engineering. Shake them up a bit. Tell them about the project you are doing here.”

“OK Carl, drop me an e-mail when you want me to stop in and I’ll schedule my weekly visit up here on that day.”

“Hey, if you speak to his kids, you’ve got to do mine too!”

“Sure Howie, no problem. I’ll talk to them too.

“How come you stopped teaching evening graduate school here? When are you going to start up again?”

“Guys….. cut me some slack. I have been busy. Maybe when I retire I will teach some more. You know in just a few weeks I shall be eligible for early retirement. It seems like yesterday you guys were roasting my tush with those killer tests”.

“Ain’t that the truth”.

As the room’s heating system bathes me in a flush of warmth, the moping traffic outside becomes less visible. I start drifting back……..


In the 1960s, NJIT was just plain old NCE, Newark College of Engineering. We joked that the school’s initials stood for Nice Cheap Education. It cost $235 a semester, plus maybe $100 for monstrously heavy engineering textbooks. You know the kinds of books I’m talking about---no pictures, just hundreds of pages of equations, diagrams, charts, and graphs.

The whole college campus was a few buildings clustered around Central High School, at most the whole shebang covered perhaps 8-10 acres. Now it’s a 40-acre powerhouse of a research university, with 6 colleges under its well-respected university umbrella, boasting about 25,000 alumni in NJ alone. Somewhere between graduation and now, the little college grew legs and arms and a whole lot of other things. Born in Newark in 1881, the place is still growing, with plans to expand westward toward the old Martland Medical Center.

Its tuition, the last time I checked, was about $9,000 a year…still very affordable, especially since today’s graduates will probably take jobs earning $40,000-$60,000 a year.

We also had another name for the school---The Factory.

Classes were held every weekday from 9:00 to 5:00, working man’s hours. After this packed tight school day, it was back home to a full night’s worth of homework, usually 4-5 hours of problem solving and reading. Many of us worked whenever we could to put ourselves through. I used to tutor Central High students in algebra, geometry, and trig; and also wrap and stock clothes at the old Robert Hall clothing store up on Bloomfield Avenue in Bloomfield.

Did I mention we had to wear jackets and ties to class? That changed however, about halfway through my stay, when the dress code succumbed to the turbulent 1960s, stimulated by a restless population of vocal and politically astute baby-boomers.

Many of us were the first generation from immigrant families to go to college. My Dad always wanted me to attend NCE. It was his personal wish for me, and I never regretted fulfilling it. It was where I belonged, and we both knew it. Mom just beamed for months after I graduated---my son, the engineer.

Only seven women were enrolled in my class. Today the college is alive with female students, and many foreign students as well. The competition remains keen. The first day I was there and attending orientation, they told us one out of three students would not last the first semester. They were right. It was tough.

There were no dormitories on campus like now. Everyone commuted to school. For me and my best friend, who lived just a few doors away, we walked from Second Avenue and No.5th Street to the City Subway at Branch Brook Park, riding it back and forth to NCE every day---usually loaded down with those textbooks from hell; and all sorts of other engineering stuff, like the ubiquitous, but now obsolete, slide rule (a “slipstick” in engineering parlance).

Parking was a nightmare on the narrow, car-clogged streets that surrounded the school. They later put in a couple of lots, and in senior year, we drove my old ’57 Chevy in, like the BMOCs we imagined ourselves to be. Everybody drove jalopies or homegrown “rods”. It was a guy-engineer thing to put a little zip into the old lead sled. When school let out, it sounded like the warm-up laps for the Indy 500. A greater variety of bubble gum and baling wire was not to be equaled. It was fair to say that most vehicles were probably qualified to be called “experimental”… best.

When I would study in old Weston Hall, I sometimes looked at the buildings in downtown Newark, wondering if my father’s other wish for me would come true, to work at PSE&G, like him. Now I look back at the college from my 10th floor office at PSE&G and wonder where the years went, and if my hair went there too. Things happen for a reason I suppose.

Funny….. how NCE sometimes haunts me in my sleep. Every now and then I will have a dream where I am somewhere on the old campus, horribly late for a big test, but cannot remember where I am supposed to be. Like I said before, it was a tough grind. But now I get to give some tests, mentor graduate students, and teach tomorrow’s engineers. I wouldn’t change anything. Dad was right. NCE prepared me very well.


As the meeting attendees start arriving, they shake me back to the present.

I am still staring blankly at cars on Central Avenue. Maybe 10 minutes have passed.

Gazing up and looking out on Old Newark, I see the Cathedral, less than a mile away at most. Nearby, almost exactly 100 years ago, in Newark’s famous Little Italy section, my mother’s parents immigrated, and raised a family of nine. They came from the hills high above Naples, like most of the others in that little ethnic enclave.

I can see St. Lucy’s Church where they were married; and when I leave the school later today, I will pass right in front of where they had their first home.

On the other side of the Cathedral is Barringer High School, where I went. Geographically, my life seems to have been so very compact, yet wonderfully diverse. My closing circle is a good thing.

How nice it would be to hear my grandfather’s voice again, the broken English-- intermixed with vigorous hand motions and passionate facial expressions; and to hear him play the accordion.

“Look Grandpa, we got a piece of America!”


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