Hi, Anon! This is an interesting question! For me, the answer is bound up in a lot of subjective views about the implications of Ford’s experiences at the end of high school, and what the show does and does not tell us about the opportunities he had, or thought he had, at the time. Forgive me if some of this is a re-hash of other meta!
I did some looking around, and the idea of taking off a year before going to college seems to have been gaining momentum in the U.K. during the 60s and 70s, but it’s only comparatively recently that it’s become more of a thing in the United States. Even today, apparently only a very small percentage of students in the United States choose to delay college for a year.It does seem that there was an established system of public “junior colleges” (what would later be called “community colleges”) for the express purpose of students entering these low-priced colleges for 2 years of course work that could then be transferred to 4-year colleges or universities. So, why Ford never tried to transfer his credits from Backupsmore to a more prestigious university, I don’t know; but again, it could have simply been a funding issue.
One thing ATOTS gets right: at the time in the late 60s, the landscape of college funding was really very different. The federal government was not in the business of offering financial aid options to students independent of their school of choice. Financial need-based grants start around 1972, and the shift to low-interest student loans (instead of grants) dates to around 1978. There was a lot more emphasis on the scholarship for those who couldn’t afford college. (And a lot more steering of lower-income students towards public institutions rather than private ones, as the public institutions tended to have low tuition, particularly for in-state residents.) Which is why the opportunity to be offered a scholarship to West Coast Tech was such a huge deal for Ford.
But there’s so much unanswered about the Pines’ situation, and so much unaddressed, that it’s really hard to tell what we’re supposed to conclude from his ending up at Backupsmore.
The implication of the scene in ATOTS, where Ford’s principal informs him about WCT coming to look at his science project, is that this is the first time anyone at the school has encouraged Ford to aspire to or apply to universities? Which seems very weird, because we’re also shown that from a young age, Ford won a lot of recognition for his academic achievements. His teachers already knew he was smart and interested in the sciences, before that Science Fair project. His guidance counselors should have been pushing him towards college, and towards competing for scholarships, if the Pines family’s financial situation wouldn’t be able to cover his going to a private school. Ford clearly had an aptitude for the sciences. It’s really interesting to me that his crowning achievement in high school is basically an engineering project, given that he does not go on to pursue an engineering degree. But, this is the height of the space race. They WANTED to get braniacs like him into the pipeline to go into working on all of the various technological advances that were being used by NASA, and various agencies concerned with the competitive technology developments related to the Cold War, not to mention the military.
Ah,yes. The military. Something the show never ever mentions (because it would be too heavy for a children’s show?) – the Vietnam war is going on at this time. I can’t actually confirm whether Ford’s polydactyly would have resulted in him being designated 4F (unfit for military service) or not, and we don’t know exactly how bad his eyesight was (only that he had to wear his glasses from a really young age). Otherwise, though, for young men at least, taking off a year before going to college would not have been a viable option simply because it was either get a student deferment, or, register for the draft and have a good chance of being sent to Vietnam. This is most noticeable when it comes to Stan. If Stan was not going to go to college, there’s no way he would have wound up working scraping barnacles off the pilings under the salt-water taffy store – everybody would have known he would wind up getting drafted, unless he did something like join the National Guard. (Which might not have been that easy to do, since obviously, a lot of people wanted to do it. What you tend to hear are stories of young men with family connections who managed to get into the N.G. and avoid being send to Vietnam – former U.S. president G.W. Bush most notably.) Anyway, getting kicked out of home, failing to finish high school, and embarking on a career as a traveling salesman with a bunch of assumed identities obviously sucked in other ways for Stan, but it allowed him to be a successful draft-dodger.
Anyway, going back to Ford – it seems possible that the show means us to assume that Ford was already applying to cheaper local/state colleges, like Backupsmore, all along, and the Science Fair was just an opportunity to earn a free ride to a much more prestigious and expensive school. (I don’t get why he wouldn’t have been regarded as a competitive choice for scholarships even before his teachers saw his Science Fair entry. But perhaps that’s just one realistic way that a school like Glass Shard Beach High failed their students.) When that fell through, he then wound up choosing between the affordable options left to him, and wound up at Backupsmore.
It’s also always been interesting to me that ATOTS has Ford (as the storyteller of that part of the narrative) strike an unapologetically elitist tone about the difference between what his college experience might have been at WCT, versus at a place like Backupsmore. I mean… I don’t think he was incorrect! I think that in the 60s and 70s, where you went to school, and the “name” and reputation of the school, had an enormous influence on the networking you could do, the attention you would get from career recruiters, and just, the access you had to facilities and funding. A big-name technical university would have drawn in a lot of federal grant money, and thus had better labs and equipment and more support for researchers. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t succeed if you didn’t go to an “elite” school (and it’s nice that the show makes this point), but undoubtedly it required more work (and luck?) to get noticed.
Just as a final note, since I’m not sure I’ve seen it mentioned: Ford’s $100,000 research grant in 1975 would be worth over $425,000 in 2012. That’s a heck of a grant! Building the Shack would not have cost anywhere near that much (especially given its log-cabin construction), and even the construction of a 3-storey subterranean lab shouldn’t have eaten into it that much. (I know Stan says that he paid off Ford’s mortage on the Shack… but what I can’t really figure out is why Ford couldn’t have just paid for the land and the Shack’s construction outright, with that kind of money, and argue that it was an appropriate use of research funds because he needed a research facility on the site of his fieldwork. Ah well! Stan would undoubtedly have thought of that! But if some of that money wasn’t used to build the Shack… what was it used for, for the 5 years Ford was researching Gravity Falls’ weirdness, before he would have had to spend it on the materials to build and fuel the Portal? Hmm. Questions for another day, perhaps.)