Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blah Blah Binghamton: An Affordable, Unremarkable College Option

The Good: Decent location, Affordable
The Bad: The degree is pretty much worthless, Most of the best professors have moved on.
The Basics: Binghamton University is a very average college experience which yields a degree of questionable value.

I’ve been graduated for twelve years now and I still have contacts at my alma matter, in addition to having visited the place an average of once a year since I graduated and that college was Binghamton University.

When I went to Binghamton University (which is what those of us who go to SUNY Binghamton call it when we want to impress others with the sound of our college), it was objectively rated the best school in the SUNY system by Forbes and a few other credible sources. This, as it turns out, means nothing in the real world beyond. Instead, I essentially went to the shiniest of the bronze schools during the platinum age. That said, under the same conditions, I would probably do it all over again. Why? It was the least expensive option that I could afford at the time and for where my life has taken me, I’ve needed my degree a pathetically little amount.


Binghamton University is a four-year college which is part of the State University Of New York higher education system. It is intended to be a state-sponsored college which allows residents of New York State access to a quality education. What it ended up being is a college that is minorly subsidized by the state and offers New York State residents a very average college experience at a price only slightly below what out-of-state students pay.

SUNY Binghamton is comprised of about fifty buildings – including the dormitories – and this is more than enough to house the approximately fifteen thousand students that attend the University. I attended as an undergraduate, having graduated in the 46th percentile of my high school graduating class with a 3.46 GPA, for two and a half years. Because I had so many A.P. and CLEP test college credits, I entered college as a sophomore and made it through the rigors of a Binghamton University liberal arts education in five semesters, plus a summer semester which I used to finish my Physical Education requirements and a few other courses before my final Fall semester. There were over a dozen people from my high school who graduated and went on to SUNY Binghamton, so I often joked that it was “Brighton In The Woods.” Only my comrades from Brighton got the joke.


Binghamton University is nestled on a hillside in Vestal, New York where it is literally the biggest thing around (physically). About two miles outside Binghamton, New York and about eighty miles south of Syracuse, Binghamton University is located only about fifteen miles from the Pennsylvania border, which puts it pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It’s absolutely beautiful there, though.

SUNY Binghamton is spread out in a complex that is brain shaped (side view) with almost all of the classes being held in any of the fifteen buildings at the back of the brain-shaped campus (the north and west side of the campus). Because the buildings are generally so close together, it is easy for most students to make it across campus in ten minutes between classes.

Binghamton features a Northern temperate climate which is cooler than most in the summer, warm in the Spring and Fall and deathly cold in the winter (having something to do with the fact that it’s in a valley, I suspect). What the area has in excess is rain and snow, but because residents of Binghamton are used to the snow and because the vast majority of students live on campus, the university almost never closes for snow days. The rain is absolutely abysmal and penetrating, though, so investing in an umbrella is actually an excellent idea if one is considering attending SUNY Binghamton. And if you tour the University on a sunny day, just know it is seldom like that. I remember Binghamton as cloudy and omniprecipitating (and I would remember because I did not have an automobile, so I cycled everywhere! EVERYWHERE!).


Given that this would be of less use to people with my rates, I investigated my alma matter to check out the going price for a mediocre education. As it is now, SUNY Binghamton’s tuition is $6,768 per year, which is twice what it cost me when I attended just over a decade ago. If you’re not a resident of New York State, you have to add $7,900 and that makes it very easy for me to advise anyone out-of-state to stay there. After all, there has to be a school that’s less expensive in your neck of the world. Most every state has public or private universities which might offer them as much as SUNY Binghamton. Why pay more for average? Then again, as a Northern liberal, we welcome the products of other states’ education systems . . . just not into the school. The admission standards required at least an 1100 on the S.A.T.s when I went (back in the say when S.A.T.s only had 1600 possible points).

But herein lies the real nagging crux of my beef with SUNY Binghamton. SUNY Binghamton’s bureaucracy is one that is as inflexible as it is insulting. As one who was not a resident of Binghamton, I was required to live on campus for the first year of my schooling, which currently runs students a bill of $10,612 and is about what I paid when I went. The inflexibility, though, was exceptional as sophomores are able to live off-campus. Despite the fact that the University had all my transcripts and would enter me as a sophomore, their administrative policy was to not update their system until the first day of classes. As a result, I was forced into an annual contract for my first year of college even though the very first day of my higher education, I went from being nothing to a sophomore. This was a ten thousand dollar irritation for me.

What is worse is that then I assumed that things would get better when I saved money by taking a job at one of the campus dining halls. After all, if I wasn’t eating, why would I have to spend $600 the next semester to buy another meal plan? That was never adequately explained to me, save that the University had a contract with Marriott and as a result, I got shafted out of more money. Yeah, that’s what my Binghamton Education taught me; to call it as I see it and use the most precise wording possible.

As for financial aid, it was abysmal. I graduated high school with a 3.46, having taken every possible English and Social Sciences course the high school had and earning almost enough credits to graduate twice, as well as starting my first year as a sophomore . . . and all I got were loans. I was paying for college on my own and the best I could get were loans which did not cover the entirety of the experience. This is why I started working three jobs each semester and why this review is fairly devoid of “social life” type experiences. I left Binghamton University after two and a half years with $12,500 in loan debts (yes, mathematicians, I was paying back some of my loans while in school!) and a piece of paper which now hangs on my wall.

Living Arrangements

Outside the whole “compelled to live there” arrangement, SUNY Binghamton is actually a pretty wonderful place to live. There are at least five different dormitory complexes and I lived (my on-campus year) in College-In-The-Woods, which is exactly as it sounds. It was a dorm complex set up and back in the hills amid the beautiful forest foliage which was amazing in the autumn, cool in the Spring and a deathtrap in the winter. Rooms were small and while I don’t have any measurements, I recall that my first apartment, which was a studio apartment which was 12’ x 15’ (no kidding!) seemed big when I moved out for my last two years in Binghamton. The standard college dorm in College-In-The-Woods was occupied by two people with two rickety metal beds with thin mattresses and barely enough room to sleep with someone on the bed (when one was so lucky).

All of the dorms, like all buildings in New York State, are smoke-free, which just means that the vestibules near each and every entrance to the buildings is a messy cesspool of cigarette ash and stink. And, as one who took the garbage out on weekends in the College-In-The-Woods complex, college students are hardly the most hygienic or smart (when the garbage gets to the top of the bag, stop putting trash in the receptacle!). Even so, Binghamton University is very easy to get around and there was plenty of parking and in all my time on campus, none of my bicycles was ever stolen.


Here’s where I feel I lucked out by the time I went to Binghamton University. I was pursuing an English degree and ended up with a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing (two foreign language credits away from having a minor in Comparative Literature). When I went, I studied under the novelists Barry Targan and Michael Huff, I learned from poets Milton Kessler (now, tragically, deceased and it’s likely I was the last student of his to see him!) and Ruth Stone. While many of my courses simply involved reading different books than I had read before (I arrived at college with a pretty strong knowledge of literary interpretation, so it’s not like I was learning a whole ton of new skills), Huff, Targan, Kessler and Stone actually helped me with my writing in ways that other educators did not.

But, therein lies the problem with Binghamton University. Targan retired the same semester as I graduated, Kessler retired and promptly died, Huff was transferred (last I knew) to a desk job in the EOP office and Stone is in her 80s. The last time I visited Binghamton University, the faculty in the English department looked exceptional (not a white male in the bunch!), but none of them had much in the way of distinction or – based on the four classes I snuck into to listen to – ability. To wit, I recognized one of the new hires in the English department as one of my peers, a young woman who had graduated two years after me. When I saw her, I instantly recognized her because she had written a cringe-worthy poem about being locked in a coffin by Nazis and having only a few cigarettes to keep the flies from swarming and infesting her protagonist with maggots. When I saw her, I pointed out that maggots don’t eat living flesh (a fact that I had learned in the years in between) and that while her protagonist was certainly in a disgusting position, she was never truly in mortal peril as the reader is meant to feel. Her response was, “It doesn’t matter, it’s still the best thing I’ve ever written.” Sigh. At least in the decade since I graduated, my novels have been raising my own bar, as well as getting better and better attention by readers.

Anyway, Binghamton University is a hotbed of liberal arts education and a supposedly strong nursing program. They will not, however, combine majors to allow one to graduate with a degree in nursing distinguished writers. In my tenure there, the writing courses were hit or miss, the literary analysis courses were on par or below the ones I took in high school and the only courses that truly stimulated me were historical literature courses (i.e. a semester immersed in Hindu Mythology) and courses focused on specific writers (I’ll never forget Milton Kessler’s Walt Whitman class . . . or the chunk of brick he stole from Walt Whitman’s house and presented me with in front of the class. Man, he was cool!).


I worked while at Binghamton, so I have minimal knowledge of activities. The University is exceptionally diverse in a sort of unofficial suburb of New York City kind of way. The University is very safe, whereas Binghamton, New York is exceptionally conservative. One of my favorite annual activities was the day each year Operation Rescue (which was birthed in Binghamton) would take over one side of the bridge in town and the pro-choice university students would take over the other side. They’d spend the day with signs, yelling at one another. I’d sit on a folding chair nearby eating popcorn and enjoying the show. Seriously.

Because my work schedules were so busy the rest of the time, I participated in no college activities, save voting in student council elections. From my vantage point at the Night Owl CafĂ© in College-In-The-Woods, I would often hear about how great the concerts were by stoned music enthusiasts coming through after the fact. And, to be fair, while I was at Binghamton University, Tori Amos and Ani Difranco visited, as well as Bella Fleck and the Flecktones. If that’s the kind of music you like, BU might be for you. I recall Binghamton having a very active jazz scene at the time, as well.

I did, however, work on the school publication, Pipe Dream, as a critic, so that’s where I got my start and my initial loathing of word limits. Like most college publications, the students on regular staff were intense editors and writers who believed everyone on campus was reading the newspaper cover to cover. Me? I just read the reviews.


Like most college experiences, it behooves the person considering SUNY Binghamton to actually visit the campus, not just for an official tour, but for a week of stealth investigations of the truth about the place. I went there because it was affordable enough and I could graduate with a B.A. so I could jump through society’s big hoop. And for those who need a place in New York state to simply play the game, it’s hard to go wrong with SUNY Binghamton.

After five semesters, I graduated SUNY Binghamton with a 3.81 GPA, a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, a clean credit card, and $12,500 in college debts. The college placement office had no leads on or off campus for employment, so I returned home to take up the same job I had before college and work on my first novel (which I finished writing within a month of graduating). If this leaves you unable to determine whether or not Binghamton University is for you, you’ve caught my gist perfectly; twelve years after, I’m not sure it was for me, but I’m not convinced anywhere else would have done me better.


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© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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