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Little-Known Federal College Boasts Supreme Court Justice as Alumnus

February 4, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There are no ivy-covered walls or homecoming queens for the 40,000 students who attend a popular but largely invisible college here that the Agriculture Department has been running quietly for nearly 70 years.

″One of the big jokes I’ve heard is that our football team has never lost a game,″ says Dr. Philip Hudson, director of the USDA Graduate School, the only government educational institution of its kind in the country.

Its longstanding affiliation with the Agriculture Department can be misleading. You won’t find farmers attending classes in bib overalls to learn about growing a prize-winning squash or building a state-of-the-art tool shed.

Instead, the Graduate School offers low-cost adult education classes to anyone over 18 who walks in the door, with instruction in 1,000 courses ranging from computer sciences to bird-watching.

Many of the students are federal bureaucrats who want to expand their job skills to qualify for promotion to higher-paying positions, but the school also attracts a fair share of Washington suburbanites who want to pursue a spare-time hobby.

The Graduate School was established in 1921 by former Agriculture Secretary Henry C. Wallace to provide after-hours graduate training for the department’s research scientists, many of whom were quitting for more lucrative jobs in private industry.

Since 176 students showed up for the first day of classes in science, economics and statistics on Oct. 17, 1921, in the Agriculture Department building on the Mall, the Graduate School has produced a million or so alumni.

Most of them are anonymous toilers in the government bureaucracy, but one of the most famous is Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White.

As a young Navy officer assigned to temporary duty in Washington in 1945, White got his first exposure to the legal profession when he took a Graduate School course in administrative law. He later entered Yale Law School.

In the early 1960s, when White was a deputy attorney general in the Kennedy administration, he returned to the Graduate School to take a ″reading improvement″ course. He recalls that it was ″quite good″ and urged his Justice Department colleagues to enroll.

The school’s international division was used to provide training in public administration for officials from the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) when that African country achieved independence in 1960. Next April, courtesy of the U.S. Information Agency, a dozen judges from the Soviet Union will arrive for Graduate School classes on the American legal system.

The curriculum offers something for nearly every taste. It is heavy on advanced technical courses but includes such exotic fare as introductory Swahili, the German novella, mushroom cultivation and assertiveness training for men and women.

Instruction is offered in daytime seminars, correspondence courses and evening and weekend sessions in rented classroom space around the city. Students attend lectures in scattered government buildings, local high schools, a private office building, the National Arboretum and the National Audubon Society’s wooded estate in suburban Maryland.

The faculty consists of 700 part-time teachers, many of them retired government officials, private professionals and professors from local colleges and universities. Two-thirds of the students already have bachelor’s degrees or better, but there are no minimum education requirements for enrollment.

The Graduate School is a non-profit, $10 million-a-year enterprise that doesn’t receive a penny in government funds. It is supported entirely by tuition fees, which average $150 for the equivalent of a two-credit college semester course.

″It’s a bargain,″ says Hudson, 47, who has been director of the Graduate School since 1985. ″In a sense, we have to have the heart and soul of a public servant and the reflexes of an entrepreneur to keep it afloat.″

Although the school doesn’t grant degrees, credits earned in 275 of its 1,000 courses have been recommended by the American Council on Education for transfer to regularly accredited colleges and universities.

Hudson says the Graduate School probably will never have an ivy-walled campus of its own, for good reason.

″We very much want to operate as a college without walls, and to be out there where the customers live and work,″ he said.

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