Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Secretary of Education Speaks: Is Our Children Learning?

The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed both carry news today of Education Sec'y Margaret Spellings' comments on the big-ass final report (download here) by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. She didn't sound too encouraging on the commission's best recommendation--that the buying power of the maximum Pell Grant be raised to 70% of the average state university tuition, approximately the 1970s buying power. She said Bush has called for increases in the Pell Grant, which in fact has been flat-funded for the past 5 years.

She was warmer on the also good recommendations to simplify the financial aid application process, although careful to say that cutting more subsidies to corporate lenders--oh, sorry, "reviewing and streamlining the entire federal system of student financial aid" is up to Congress.
And she engaged in what Inside Higher Ed called "higher-ed bashing" over the many recommendations for measurement, comprehensive student tracking, and money tied to accountability, suggesting that any college that doesn't want its students ear-tagged is operating from "fear" of scrutiny.

I have no doubt that there are lots of ways colleges can and should save money, nor that they could improve accountability. How much of the cost increases come from the vast expansion in colleges' missions over the past 30 years, the need to add new technologies? How is it that productivity has increased so much everywhere in our economy except for health care and education?

But you're not going to get improved results in our education system from a corporate downsizing mentality. The Bush Administration's record over the past six years should raise some suspicion that they know the true meaning of the word efficiency and can even recognize competence, let alone measure it.

UPDATE: Rep George Miller sez:

"The Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress, far from addressing the college cost crisis, have actually made it worse. Earlier this year they cut $12 billion out of the federal student aid programs, pushing college further out of reach for American families. Nor have they done anything to boost need-based scholarships for low- and moderate-income students. The Pell Grant scholarship has been frozen for four years, and it is worth over $900 less, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it was 30 years ago. For these reasons, it is hard to take the Bush administration's sudden commitment to college access and affordability seriously.
"Democrats believe that we must act immediately to put college back within reach of all Americans. We have introduced legislation to lower college costs by cutting interest rates in half on college loans for students and parents in the most need. It is time for a new direction for America so that every qualified student who wants a good college education can afford to get one."

Monday, September 25, 2006

No Debt is Good Debt

Michelle Singletary, who I've had the pleasure of meeting and also interviewing, devotes her personal finance column in the Washington Post yesterday to arguing that the best student loan debt is no student loan debt.

"The rising student loan levels are so troubling, it's time we stop saying this is good debt."Having over $100,000 in student loan debt is not fun," wrote one reader, a new lawyer who joined me during a recent online discussion. "Do I regret going? No, but it certainly didn't pan out the way I thought it would."


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Opportunity Maine

Orono, ME: Another day, another innovative student-led initative to conquer loan debt. Tonight I spoke to a, let's say, selective audience at the University of Maine and had the privilege to eat dinner with Andrew Bossie, a student at the University of Southern Maine and, I was told, the major architect of the Opportunity Maine ballot initiative.

If this initiative is passed, graduates of Maine's public colleges and universities will receive tax credits to offset the full amount of their student loan payments for every year that they remain in the state. Their employer can also take on the student loan and get the tax credit.

They did careful polling to shape this policy, drafted with the help of the Secretary of State, which includes no new taxes and combats brain drain. They need 60,000 signatures before the vote in November 2007. Good luck, guys!

Time looks at Internships

I am quoted in support of the point that unpaid internships are unfair to all but rich kids.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Big, Sick Kids

(Mirrored at the Huffington Post)

Last week, Jennifer 8. Lee of the Times did a great job on a story I covered in the Village Voice about seven months ago and wrote about in Generation Debt: a trend of laws in several states that extend health care coverage to young adults up to age 30 on their parents' plans.
Young people are twice as likely to be uninsured as the population at large.

For me, this story is extremely timely. I've had four health care plans in the last five years, through COBRA, a freelance journalists' association, domestic partner coverage from my fiance's job, and finally an employer, which is ending in December. These have ranged widely in their generosity, adequacy and responsiveness, and at times, I've needed help to pay the bills. My fiancee is currently figuring out how he's going to afford coverage for an upcoming gap between school and work.

"The rise of uninsured young adults results from two main economic forces, analysts say. Changes in the workplace mean that fewer jobs now have full benefits, which disproportionately affects the newest workers. In addition, the rising cost of premiums, whether shared with an employer or paid individually, makes insurance less attractive to a relatively healthy population."

Lee and I both made the obvious points that this policy is a little infantilizing (as is the phrase "adult children." When did that oxymoron become acceptable?) but that it is providing a useful stopgap for a specific group that is relatively cheap to insure.

Two other points need to be made, however. One is the class implications of such a policy. If your parents don't happen to have a solid job with benefits, you're SOL. The other is that policies like these are no more than Band-Aids. The larger trend, as the excellent health research group the Commonwealth Fund recently underlined with a new survey, is declining employer coverage and increased cost to the individual. What we need is comprehensive reform and large-scale risk pooling, not stopgap measures that protect a small, relatively privileged and relatively healthy proportion of the population.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Loan Consolidation is the Priciest Adword

(For more about adwords and cost-per-click go here and here).
An informant writes:

The top 50 most expensive adwords "Loan consolidation" ($69.16) currently owns them all

This is the list of the top 50 most expensive Google adwords as of September 11, 2006 (GMT+1) (according to wget, grep, sed & friends). Prices are shown in estimated average CPC (costs per click). Yes, just one tiny click from someone searching for these keywords is worth almost $70 to someone, apparently.

(loan consolidation-related keywords make up 13 of the top 20!)

Adword Average CPC
school loan consolidation $69.16
college loan consolidation $68.35
car insurance quotes $66.88
school consolidation $66.29
auto insurance quotes $65.90
college consolidation $64.04
student loan consolidation rates $60.14
sell structured settlement $59.82
sell annuity $58.92
federal student loan consolidation $58.58
auto quotes $58.09
auto insurance quote $57.99
student consolidation $56.96
student loan consolidation $56.91
student loan consolidation interest rate $56.52
consolidate student loan $54.61
san diego dui attorney $54.56
car insurance $53.16
structured settlement $52.96
consolidate school loans $52.88
student loan refinance $52.44
consolidation of student loans $52.43

Graduation Rates in the Toilet

In Chicago: At Northeastern Illinois University, a tidy commuter campus on the North Side of Chicago, only 17 percent of students who enroll as full-time freshmen graduate within six years, according to data collected by the federal Department of Education. At Chicago State University on the South Side, the overall graduation rate is 16 percent.

Money quote:
“When you have a system where virtually everyone fails, how is that different from designing a system in which the point is for people to fail?” [Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at the Education Sector] added. “No one can look at that and say this is the best we can do.”

Monday, September 11, 2006

US News on Free Tuition Programs

Article by a University of Rochester grad who emails:

I have been following your blog for a while. Your issues are ones that are very near and dear to my heart.
These programs don’t completely make college tuition affordable because most of these programs only cover tuition and 50 percent or more of college costs can be due to room, board, fees, and other expenses at public schools. But these
programs are recognizing that college tuition is spiraling out of reach for low and middle-income families and trying to correct it. I think they are a step in the right direction.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Michigan State University, Miami University in Ohio, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rice University have all eliminated loans from the financial aid packages of low-income students. Princeton University offers loan-free packages to all students who qualify for financial aid. Other schools, like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities, eliminate the parental contribution for low-income students but retain the student contribution. So the student may still require loans to cover tuition.

Basically, I agree with the author's take. School-based aid is never going to level the playing field, but competitive, well-endowed schools are often beacons for the rest of the field.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Where All The Children Are Above Average

Last Thursday I had the privilege of speaking at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, both about Generation Debt and to Mass Communication students about my short career in journalism. The highlight of my trip was meeting the students of the Minnesota State University Students Association, some of whom drove 2 1/2 hours from the Twin Cities. MSUSA is essentially a state version of the successful student unions found in Canada and Europe, founded in 1967 and funded by a small per-credit student fee. They make a lobbying trip to Washington each spring. They are up on the issue of student debt.
At Winona State, the Student Senate has a page for people to register their hometowns, majors, and cumulative student loans.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Nonprofits' role in Rebuilding New Orleans

I wrote about the rebuilding process here, and here.

I want to recommend this blog post by Becky Houtman, a New Orleans neighborhood activist, to anyone interested in the operation of nonprofits more generally. Basically, as a local person she's arguing for local input in the huge science project that is New orleans, and points out that in general nonprofits' record of promoting democracy and reaching out to the public is less than perfect.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Awesome research on education and the labor market

Dr. Cecilia Rouse, quoted in the New York Times story mentioned below, is the author of a forthcoming book that sounds like Generation Debt: Academic Edition. Her Princeton website has links to some fascinating-sounding articles, including

"Labor Market Returns to Two- and Four-year College,"
"The Community College: Educating Students at the Margin Between College and Work,"
and (no link)
"Putting Students and Workers First? Education and Labor Policy in the 1990s" (with Alan Krueger) in Economic Policy in the 1990s, Jeffrey Frankel and Peter Orszag, editors, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002): 663-728.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hmm, Sounds Familiar

This Labor Day, the 45 million young people in the nation’s work force face a choppy job market in which entry-level wages have often trailed inflation, making it hard for many to cope with high housing costs and rising college debt loads.
Entry-level wages for college and high school graduates fell by more than 4 percent from 2001 to 2005, after factoring in inflation, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by the Economic Policy Institute. In addition, the percentage of college graduates receiving health and pension benefits in their entry-level jobs has dropped sharply.

...Census Bureau data released last week underlined the difficulties for young workers, showing that median income for families with at least one parent age 25 to 34 fell $3,009 from 2000 to 2005, sliding to $48,405, a 5.9 percent drop, after having jumped 12 percent in the late 1990’s.

Worsening the financial crunch, far more college graduates are borrowing to pay for their education, and the amount borrowed has jumped by more than 50 percent in recent years, largely because of soaring tuition.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Dialogue with Richard Power

I recently had the honor to become acquainted with Richard Power, who runs a blog commenting on national and world events here.
Why should you listen to what he has to say on world events?

PBS's Frontline calls him
an internationally recognized authority on computer crime, information security, industrial espionage...
and his own bio says As Editorial Director of the Computer Security Institute (CSI), he was widely and frequently quoted in mainstream news media. He established the CSI/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey, testified for the U.S. Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations, and was featured on PBS Frontline. Power also authored of Tangled Web: Tales of Digital Crime from the Shadows of Cyberspace (Que, 078972443X).
Later, as Director of Global Security Intelligence for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (DTT), Power developed a Global Security and Crisis Management Strategy, including all aspects of personnel, physical and cyber security, for a workforce of over 100,000 people in over 100 countries.
In 2005, he founded GS(3) Intelligence and Words of Power to write, speak and consultant independently. With leading forensic expert Dario Forte, Power co-authors “War and Peace in Cyberspace,” a monthly column, published in Computer Fraud and Security Journal (Elsevier).

Now that you're perhaps suitably impressed, check out his interview with me and review of the book on his blog.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Fast Company feature on Jeff Skoll online

from the September issue:
I'm not the first blonde to find herself standing with eyes closed in an office in Beverly Hills, eager to be manipulated by a Hollywood executive. "Hold out your hands," says Jeff Skoll, founder of Participant Productions, the film company behind Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, and An Inconvenient Truth. "Now, imagine that your right hand is holding a heavy book. Your left hand is attached to a helium balloon." When I open my eyes, my hands are about six inches apart--a hypnosis test indicating some, but not extreme, suggestibility.

It's Class...Stupid

I don't know how i've missed Thomas Frank's guest columns in the New York Times. But the one published on Tuesday (sorry, select) is just brilliant. Basically, liberalism is dying because we don't go back to our roots and admit that class matters.

"in “The Disposable American,” a disturbing history of job security, Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democrats’ emphasis on retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the fitness of the unemployed person himself.

Or take the “inevitability” of recent economic changes, a word that the centrist liberals of the Washington school like to pair with “globalization.” We are told to regard the “free-trade” deals that have hammered the working class almost as acts of nature. As the economist Dean Baker points out, however, we could just as easily have crafted “free-trade” agreements that protected manufacturing while exposing professions like law, journalism and even medicine to ruinous foreign competition, losing nothing in quality but saving consumers far more than Nafta did."

In fairness, journalists *are* exposed to lots of foreign competition via the Internet, not free trade agreements. And paralegals and some radiologists are getting outsourced too now. But I think the critique of the hypocrisy of professional protectionism is right on. Nowhere more obviously than in the academic world. The BA is the required credential for most decent jobs and a pretty expensive one, too--but what does it really teach you? or prepare you for? More and more, I'm realizing that Frank is right, education is not the only answer for what ails us.