Wednesday, December 28, 2005


From Reason:
College Kids Need to Hear the World's Smallest Violin

Neal McCluskey relies on a very selective reading of the statistics to determine that students are living "higher on the hog." For example, he says that aid dollars are increasing: "Between 1994–95 and 2004–05, total inflation-adjusted student aid provided through state and federal grants and subsidized loans ballooned from $37 billion to almost $69 billion." Well, to most students, especially poor and minority students, loans don't really function as aid, because they have to be paid back, with interest.And the proportion of grants to loans has reversed since the 1980s, to 58% loans and 41% grants.

He also pulls out the old saw that a BA provides a lifetime "million-dollar payoff"--"That means after factoring in loan debt, the average bachelor's degree holder will turn a huge $982,400 profit on college!" To me, this "point" betrays such a narrow view of the purpose of higher education. I'll borrow the words of Bob Shireman here: Yes, it is true that a college graduate, on average, earns close to a million dollars more over a lifetime than a high school graduate. But there are two trick words in that sentence. First, you have to graduate from college, a feat that barely half of those who start college currently achieve within six years. Second, the high economic returns to education are an average. Actual salaries of college graduates vary enormously because of career and life choices, skills, geography, fluctuations in the economy, and plain old luck.

A college education is not an expensive painting that you buy to turn a profit on. It's an investment in America's future growth--each person with a BA contributes more in taxes and in productivity than a person without one. To cut off access at the start by forcing students to borrow their way through is an extremely short-sighted use of funds.

English Professors Know: The Word is "Debt"

From "Inside Higher Ed":
Professors who specialize in language can probably draw from a vast reservoir of choice words to describe the current fiscal climate of academe. And based on one small sample, few of those words are good.

For Jeffrey J. Williams, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the word is “debt.” Williams was one of the professors who shared his choice at a session called “Academic Labor: Keywords for Current Conditions” at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention in Washington Tuesday.

Professors who went through college in the 1970s and 1980s may not have dealt with student debt, Williams said, but they’d better start talking about it now. “Sex is not the great forbidden,” he said. “People talk about it all the time. Money is the great forbidden.”

Monday, December 26, 2005

New Orleans at Xmas

I'm no photographer, but if you go here you can see some pictures I took of New Orleans this Christmas. My personal favorite is Santa's Ghetto Sleigh.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Pension Pain

Wrote this quick piece for the Voice about the link between pensions and the MTA strike...

In a quaint phrase, the Social Security Administration has long described the current retirement system in America as a three-legged stool. One pictures Grandma sitting on that stool, perhaps next to the coal stove, working on some mending.

Kevin Smith: Poet of Gen Debt?

Mr. Smith, 35, is working on "Clerks 2: The Passion of the Clerks," tentatively scheduled for release in the spring. "All I can say about 'Clerks 2' is that it deals with what happens to this angry young man when he becomes 35 and is no longer relevant to society since he's not in the age group targeted by corporations anymore."

That message, Mr. Smith said, will resonate with his most dedicated audiences. "My Web sites tell me my fan base is overeducated, underemployed slacker college kids like my two 'Clerks' characters and generally myself," he said.

One Third of Entire Budget Cuts come from Students

"Nearly one-third of all the savings in the final budget bill comes from student aid, the Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday."

I bet you students didn't realize you were the single most financially healthy sector of society, most able to bear the sacrifice for everybody. Not CEOs. Not the banking industry. Not millionaire retirees. Twenty year olds who live off student loans and low-wage jobs while trying to finish a bachelor's degree at a public university.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There's Time to Protest this Vote

From the State PIRGS:

This morning, the Senate voted 51 to 50, with Vice-President Cheney casting a tie-breaking vote, to cut $12.7 billion out of the student loan programs. Rather than cutting lender subsidies, the bill takes approximately 70% of its savings from higher loan interest rates for borrowers and redirecting excessive student and parent payments to private lenders. These cuts are not only the largest in the history of the student loan program, but also the largest single cut in the budget reconciliation package. This budget bill will make student and families pay more for their loans so that Congress can direct new tax cuts to some of the wealthiest Americans.


Before the vote, Senator Conrad used a procedural maneuver to strip two non-germane provisions out of the bill. As a result the newly amended reconciliation bill must return to the House to be approved. Members of the House will now be able to reconsider their votes from early Monday morning, made mere hours after the final bill was introduced. In the coming weeks, students will continue to make the case to Congress that they should stop this raid on student aid.

How did your representative vote?

Publisher's Weekly Review: Livelier

Here's my second review, from Publishers Weekly:
Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young

Anya Kamenetz. Riverhead, $23.95 (304p) ISBN 1-59448-907-6

Surveying the economic realities facing today's 20- and 30-somethings, 24-four-old Kamenetz decides, "It's not too dramatic to say that the nation is abandoning its children." Thanks to skyrocketing tuition and changes in federal funding, college students are graduating with an average of almost $20,000 in loans at the same time that jobs have become scarcer, real wages have dropped and the cost of health care has soared. Is it any wonder that kids are boomeranging home and racking up credit card debt? Kamenetz, who first wrote about these issues for the Village Voice, intertwines an analytical overview of the new economic obstacles with interviews of the financially strapped and descriptions of her own experience struggling to make ends meet as a freelance journalist. Her book is livelier than Tamara Draut's similarly themed Strapped, but lighter in its analysis of law and policy. Most interestingly, Kamenetz documents how our perception of the crisis is shaped by self-centered boomers who have lost touch with their children's plight. More of a white paper than a guidebook, this volume doesn't offer under-40s much personal financial advice (that job is taken up by Gener@tion Debt, see review below). It does, however, make clear how imperative it is that we find solutions to these problems as quickly as possible. (Feb.)

From Teach for America to FEMA

My latest Gen Debt column is up and in the Voice today. It's a profile from my time in New Orleans about a guy who took a job with Teach for America and ended up working as a contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Look out for my next column which will contain some surprising info about the relationship between Sallie Mae and Congress.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Merry Xmas, Student Borrowers

The latest on the student loan bills.

From the state PIRGs:

The House and Senate budget conferees returned a bill with a net cut of $12.7 billion to the student loan programs. Rather than cutting lender subsidies, the bill derives approximately 70% of its savings from higher loan interest rates for borrowers and redirecting excessive student and parent payments to private lenders. While Congress directs several billion dollars to pay for grant aid and some student borrower benefits, the bulk of the cuts will be sent out of the program to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

From Representative George Miller's office:

Over the next five years the bill raises $14.9 billion from excessive student and parent interest payments and higher interest rates on parent loans. This figure includes about $13 billion in excessive payments made by student and parent borrowers. Under current law, when borrowers pay more than a fair market rate on their college loans, lending institutions are allowed to keep this windfall, even though it represents excessive payments made by student and parent borrowers. Rather than return these excessive interest payments to student and parent borrowers, this budget bill simply shifts them to pay for additional tax breaks for the wealthy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sallie Mae: Making a Fortune

Fortune Magazine on Sallie Mae: a "stock market superstar" and a "predatory lender."

Sallie's dividend has risen at an average annual clip of 18 percent over the past ten years. And thanks to hefty helpings of stock options, Sallie's top executives have earned fortunes. From 1999 to 2004, just-retired CEO Al Lord -- now the lead investor in a group trying to purchase the Washington Nationals -- received total compensation of $225 million. New CEO Thomas "Tim" Fitzpatrick made $145 million over the same period.

To produce those sorts of numbers, a company usually has to be obsessed with the bottom line, and Sallie is certainly that (a big chunk of its executives' bonuses is based on Sallie's profits). As good as that may be for shareholders, a growing number of critics contend that those profits are coming at the expense of Sallie's other constituents: students and taxpayers.

"Sallie advocates policies we believe are frequently contrary to the interest of students," says Luke Swarthout, a higher-education advisor to the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. He charges that Sallie used its political clout to shape new legislation that will increase the cost of student loans.

That classic capitalist dilemma: this is immoral, but really, really profitable!

Colleges brace for For-profit takeovers

Last year, there were at least 10 for-profit takeovers of nonprofit colleges. Some see a coming changeover process akin to what happened in the last decade when hospitals were bought up by for-profit companies, and we all know how well that worked out. Just another way in which education is coming to resemble the health-care crisis (sorry for the self-quote.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The First Review of Generation Debt: "Decent"

I hear that Kirkus (one of the trades that publishes pre-publication reviews) is tough, and this review is good to mixed. :

Kamenetz focuses her first book on the increasing economic difficulties of today's American youth. Her primary aim here is to figure out exactly how the baby boomers financially
screwed generations X and Y and to describe how the victims are trying to dig themselves out of the holes they're in. She devotes the bulk of her readable though scattershot text to examples of young people trying to get by in an America of diminished employment prospects and little financial security.
She identifies many contributing factors: the gargantuan loans necessary for all but the very rich to get a college degree, which often doesn't pay for itself in post-graduation income; the shrinking federal safety net; rampant consumerism fueled by too-easily accessible credit cards with ruinous interest rates. This is worthwhile material, and many readers will feel embarrassed complaining about their own lives after plowing through tales of grinding borderline poverty, but Kamenetz doesn't satisfactorily string it all together...Kamenetz is at least able to make the strong point that the young can't look to people in power
for help: "It is time for all of us to start living for the future."

A decent guide to the coming financial reckoning.

New Orleans: Reports of Death Exaggerated

My latest Voice "Note from New Orleans" on why the city is not dead yet:

Do I think the Times is wrong? Not exactly. It's absolutely true, as the Editorial Board wrote, that if this city doesn't get the federal help it needs, and soon, the recovery will be crippled. It's true, as they say, that stalling out on this aid, needed for the levees and the rebuilding, in Washington is a great wrong and a great shame and shows our nation's weakness-"a feeble giant indeed." It is a weakness most of all, as they say, that we appear, as a nation, to accept our leader's violation of promises made a mere three months ago. It's true, as they do not say, that the city's black diaspora is having the most trouble returning, and that what is really at stake is the death of a major black American city.

But they are wrong to suggest that it is within the realm of possibility to abandon this city. They don't understand how much of its spirit has already revived, that this absolutely devastated place already has 10 times the charm of your Houston, your Detroit, your Scottsdale, and even more so because it feels like a small town for the moment. They haven't driven the miles of abandoned streets in Mid-City only to come upon a FEMA travel trailer wrapped in white Christmas lights. They haven't heard the indignant tone of a woman with 13 grandchildren evacuated to Texas when she says, "Of course we want to come home. This is home."

Need a House? Add Grandma

A long piece in New York magazine about a couple in their 20s who can't afford to buy a house in Brooklyn unless they take in their elderly grandma.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Read All About It

I had an Op-Ed column in THE NEW YORK TIMES today.
I'd be lying if I tried to play it cool and say I wasn't very, very excited about this opportunity. Let me know what you think, i've gotten a dozen emails already.

Op-Ed Contributor
Robbing Joe College to Pay Sallie Mae

THE higher education financing system in this country, like the health care system, is broken. In both cases, costs spiral out of control while millions of people, especially the poor, are not served. And in both cases, a few corporations are making hefty profits.

From the 1950's to the 1970's, college attendance grew along with federal student grant aid. Then, as tuition mushroomed and loans replaced grants, educational attainment stagnated. Today, those lucky enough to graduate from college end up with an average of $17,600 in loans, a burden that shapes decisions like buying a house or having children. But most young people are not so lucky - half of those who start college do not graduate at all, in part because of the financial burden of staying in school. As a result, Americans aged 25 to 34 are less educated than 45- to 54-year-olds - and more to the point, less educated on average than the citizens of several other industrialized nations.

The federal student aid system fails students, but it does a great job of delivering profits to private lenders, which issued $65 billion in loans last year. When it created the loan program, Congress assumed that banks would not lend to young people without extensive guarantees and incentives. So they guaranteed a certain rate of return on student loans, made up their losses on defaulters, created a secondary market for student loans by chartering the Student Loan Marketing Corporation (Sallie Mae) and allowed state lending authorities to issue tax-exempt bonds to raise loan capital. Student lending has grown into a highly profitable and low-default market, yet these special privileges persist.

Sallie Mae, the private company that makes, buys and sells the most student loans, boasted the second-highest return on revenue in the 2005 Fortune 500. Sallie Mae also happens to be the largest contributor, by far, to members of the House Education Committee. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that the committee chairman alone, John Boehner of Ohio, received $172,000 from student lenders and loan consolidators in 2003 and 2004.

It's thus no surprise that lawmakers are apt to protect lenders and not students. On Oct. 26, Mr. Boehner's committee approved more than $14 billion in cuts over the next six years, which would be the largest reduction in the history of the federal student aid program. Mr. Boehner defended the cuts by saying they mostly came from corporate subsidies to Sallie Mae, Bank One, Citibank and the rest. But that gets to the heart of what is wrong with this program - and the way to fix it. The best way to reverse the shocking trends in debt and educational attainment would be to switch from loans back to grants. Given ballooning deficits, though, that's a nonstarter. Instead, why not cut off subsidies to banks and give that money to needy students?

One way to do that is to expand a program begun in 1992 in which the government makes loans directly. A recent Government Accountability Office report showed that direct loans cost the government one-fifth as much as subsidized loans over the past 10 years. Mr. Boehner, however, kept the report under wraps for 30 days, and it was released just hours before the House committee vote. Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, estimates that the aid program could save $60 billion over the next decade by switching entirely to direct loans - enough for almost a 50 percent increase in Pell Grant money.

A group of students has also proposed a National Tuition Endowment, which would preserve an estimated $30 billion for need-based grants by cutting loan subsidies and finally closing an infamous loophole that has lenders collecting 9.5 percent interest from the government on certain loans.

Yet Mr. Boehner is heading in a different direction. He told an audience of commercial student lenders earlier this month that "I've got enough rabbits up my sleeve" to make them happier with the bill.

With the higher education budget scheduled for passage next year, this is a great occasion for a public debate on the values that conservatives claim, like individual self-determination, free markets and international competitiveness. Do we want to keep robbing from our future?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

This Train they Call the City

The New York Times has run 2 good editorials about the fate of New Orleans, where I went to high school and where I have been for the past 4 weeks. Both of them say the right things, but with a ring of defeatism and fatalism that I find extremely hard to accept. I write this post from a cafe packed with (local) customers on a beautiful December day. A core of this city has already come alive, and I believe it MUST be saved.

Editorial today
We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.

The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.

The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year's estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.

Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?

Losing a major American city.

Krugman on Friday:

Now we're losing another window of opportunity for reconstruction. But this time it's at home.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush made an elaborately staged appearance in New Orleans, where he promised big things. "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region," he said, "will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Such an effort would be the right thing to do. We can argue about details - about which levees should be restored and how strong to make them - but it's clearly in the nation's interests as well as local residents' to rebuild much of the regional economy.
the private sector can't rebuild the region on its own. The reason goes beyond the need for flood protection and basic infrastructure, which only the government can provide. Rebuilding is also blocked by a vicious circle of uncertainty. Business owners are reluctant to return to the gulf region because they aren't sure whether their customers and workers will return, too. And families are reluctant to return because they aren't sure whether businesses will be there to provide jobs and basic amenities.

A credible reconstruction plan could turn that vicious circle into a virtuous circle, in which everyone expects a regional recovery and, by acting on that expectation, helps that recovery come to pass. But as the months go by with no plan and no money, businesses and families will make permanent decisions to relocate elsewhere, and the loss of faith in a gulf region recovery will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Restless with Anticipation

A friend sent me this Seattle P-I fluff piece on intergenerational conflicts as the Boomers turn 60.

It's all about "young adults - members of generations known as X and Y - wondering what will be left for them, especially as the cost of living rises, national debt increases, and as the huge population of aging boomers begins to devour Social Security and company pensions." ... and student loan debt, credit card debt, temp/low-wage/low benefit jobs...

"Young adults also are ready to wrestle away their piece of the pie from boomer politicians, from "helicopter parents" who hover over their adult kids, and even from aging rockers who have yet to give up the stage.

The question is: will boomers let them - and recognize they can't rule forever?"

Bankrupt? Have a Credit Card!

New York Times:
Under the new [bankruptcy] law, which the banking industry spent more than $100 million lobbying for, [the newly bankrupt] may be even more attractive [to credit card companies] because it makes it harder for them to escape new credit card debt and extends to eight years from six the time before which they could liquidate their debts through bankruptcy again....

...Consumer groups say the new law has put millions of Americans at risk of being in a continuous debt loop through their credit cards.

Million Dollar Babies

Women in their 20s gain 10 percent in lifetime earnings for every year they wait to have a child. A woman who has her first child at 25 earns 10 percent less over her entire life than a woman who waits until 26. If you have a child before 30, it will reduce your earnings on average for the rest of your life. (The wage hit is smaller in your 30s). I read this entire article out loud to my fiance.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Youth Represent at Climate Conference

And get a nice story in the Times:

"Major social changes start with a shift in philosophy, and then a new generation is born with that at their core," said Josh Tulkin, 24, who works for a group focused on climate issues in the region outside Washington, D.C., and also for a network of youth organizations called SustainUs. "That generation is us."

Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with a message aimed at delegates: "Stop asking how much it will cost you and start asking how much it will cost us."

A good slogan for Generation Debt.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Coming Back to Bite You

The Supreme Court says the federal government can seize an old, disabled man's Social Security payments to pay for 20-year-old student loans.

Outstanding student loans total about $33 billion, $7 billion of which is delinquent debt.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Student Loans and Slavery Reparations?


Decrying a refusal by banks implicated in the US slave trade to pay reparations to the descendents of enslaved blacks, a collection of religious, community, student and political groups yesterday called for a boycott of student loans backed by finance companies with historical ties to slavery.

The banks named are JP Morgan Chase, Wachovia and Bank of America, all of whom are accused of having accepted slaves as collateral on loans; JP Morgan apologized and put up $5 million in scholarship $, Wachovia apologized, Bank of America denied it.

Complicated. I was on a panel about slavery reparations this fall at Medgar Evars College. The African-American individuals in attendance expressed the view that reparations are an explosive issue representing their hope for an end to their continuing economic and social disadvantages and a powerful and successful future for their community--perhaps even a revolutionary ideal. This was totally news to me because for the white people I know, the issue of reparations is a nonissue--considered only in the abstract, easily dismissed. A serious disconnect, to say the least.

Should Federal Aid Depend on Allowing Military Recruitment?

Today the Supreme Court heard the question of whether the federal government can withold student aid from universities that even symbolically restrict access to military recruitment, on anti-discrimination grounds (because the military, unlike other employers that must abide by equal-opportunity laws, openly bans gays and lesbians. )

I'm disturbed by the way the state's lawyers equate the federal government with the military. The military is set apart when it suits their purposes--we are asked to support the troops even when we oppose the war, and quite rightly. The very existence of the ban on gays supports the idea that the military is a separate estate. By the same token, I believe that the operation of the federal student aid program ought to be kept separate from the desire of the military for new recruits.

Say it with me: Pri! orities!

"At the end of the day, I believe you'll be at least satisfied, or even perhaps happy," with the new higher education appropriations bill, Representative John Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told an appreciative audience on Monday. "Know that I have all of you in my two trusted hands."
Was he speaking to students? Of course not. It was an audience of student lenders unhappy with the proposed cuts in their federal subsidies. Cuts to higher ed are now up to $20 billion in the Senate bill.
According to the Chronicle of Higher ed (sub. req.):
"In his speech to the bankers, Mr. Boehner said he would push to roll back some of the proposed cuts. He wasn't specific but said, "I've got enough rabbits up my sleeve" to produce a bill that would not be harmful to lenders."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Notes from New Orleans

I've been down in New Orleans for about two weeks, doing a mix of reporting and volunteering. Here are two very rough reports I've filed for the Voice.

Relief at the Point of a Gun

Black Out: New Orleans Getting More White? Sure, By Locking Out African-Americans

The one thing I would like to convey that I think is not coming across in the news is just how hard folks are working to get the city back up and running, whether it's individuals, local businesses, or community institutions like the zoo, parks and museums. The city has never been so small, personal and friendly. If the recovery stalls out, it will absolutely be a failure of our government to get us the aid we need, not of the initiative and spirit of this place.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Burning up the Future

My friend Billy Parish of Energy Action is in Montreal making sure that the voice of the future (ie, youth) is heard at the current UN climate change summit. They're blogging the conference anad they issued a Youth Declaration calling for minimum binding emissions reductions of 30% by 2020 and "a just transition to low-impact renewable energy."

From where I sit right now, in a post-K New Orleans, the growing danger of global warming does not look theoretical. This is a whole other angle of Generation Debt. Here you have a group of wealthy, mostly over-50 leaders and business execs who are furthering the status quo for their own gain, to the untold detriment of those of us who have our whole lives ahead of us.

Or as Bush likes to say: "And he said, ‘History,’ and then he took his hands out of his pocket and kind of shrugged and extended his hands as if this is a way off. And then he said, ‘History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.’”

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Our For-Profit Future

A small private college goes for-profit and, one year later, eliminates all liberal-arts programs.

Jon Jay De Temple, president of Post for the last five years, said that he believes the institution needs focus. “We’re not big enough to do everything for everybody,” he said.

De Temple said that based on that view, administrators and board members believe that majors that don’t “lead to a job” should be eliminated. He stressed that there would still be history and English instruction at the university, but said that there would not be any upper-level courses. “We’re probably not the best institution to turn out an English major,” he said.

The college hopes to shift resources to expand offerings in high-growth fields such as criminal justice, health services, and sports and entertainment. Post also wants to improve its well regarded equestrian program.

Ooh, equestrians! Maybe this will be the training ground of the next Michael Brown.

Living Together

My newest Generation Debt column is about the economic advantages and drawbacks of cohabitation.

Monday, November 28, 2005

SUNY anti-Tuition Action

Press Release from NYPIRG today:


Dozens of college students from across the state will travel to
Albany tomorrow, Tuesday, November 29, to deliver thousands of postcards to Governor Pataki urging him not to raise tuition and to increase funding for higher education when he proposes his Executive Budget in January.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Don't Forget About Consolidation

In all of the talk about student loan program cuts, says this Albany Times-Union editorial, don't forget that the ability to consolidate loans --refinance at a lower interest rate--is also at stake:

But when it comes to a double whammy, students and former students who are paying off their loans are in a special class. The House is said to favor making permanent a provision in current law that prohibits borrowers from renegotiating interest rates more than once in the lifetime of a loan. That contrasts with the flurry of refinancing whenever mortgage interest rates decline.

Back when Sallie Mae, a major education finance company, was a quasi-public agency, this provision made sense. But Sallie Mae is now in the private marketplace and, by some estimates, is enjoying profits of some $1 billion a year. At the same time, the government shields lenders from bad student loans by denying borrowers the right to write them off by declaring bankruptcy.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Starbucks Union Marches On

Last May, I wrote for New York magazine about the efforts of young Manhattan Starbucks workers to unionize as members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, the most storied union in American history.
Well, they've now organized the workers at a third Starbucks on Union Square. Their demands include a guaranteed 30-hour workweek; they point out that it's tough to make rent when you can be cut down from 30 to 10 hours on a week-by-week basis.
Millions of young people are working low-wage jobs like these for years as they struggle to get through college, or instead of college, or after college. It seems to me that everyone would benefit if these workers had more solidarity and if the jobs were of a higher caliber when it came to wages, benefits, and stability.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hunting the Hunters

This website, Student Loan Justice, sheds light on the cruel practices and obscene profits of student loan collectors.

According to Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren in a Wall Street Journal piece by John Hechinger last year, "Student-loan debt collectors have power that would make a mobster envious."

A refreshingly militant air to their language as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not My War

Today is the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition National Not Your Soldier Day of Action.
(A cool Google Map of the actions across the country at colleges, high schools and even junior highs.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why Your Punk Waitress is Angry

Andrew Leonard's long, navel-gazy, but ultimately fascinating essay in Salon about Richard Lloyd's book about "Neo-Bohemia" as personified in the apparently happenin' neighborhood of Wicker Park in Chicago contains this great snippet:

Wicker Park's economy, which depends largely on its hip, young residents either working long hours as bartenders or waitstaff, or long hours in various digital design occupations. This is fascinating, original and deeply humane sociology at its finest; he demonstrates that in the name of freedom, young people working in allegedly relaxed service-sector jobs waste years of their lives in a whirl of drugs, alcohol and deceptively low wages. It's a classic example of a circular economy: While a bartender at an upscale Wicker Park club may earn $250 or more in tips from a shift, he or she is likely to go right out to an after-hours club with friends and spend it all on lavish tips to another bartender on the circuit. To anyone who's ever worked in the nightlife business, all this will ring sad but true.

The book sounds very meta: a theoretical dissection of the nostalgia and "performance of cultural distinction" of hipsterism is exactly the type of book best discussed loudly in a cafe over microbrews and free trade coffee.

For-Profit Colleges

My first piece for Slate magazine went up today. It's about what I consider to be the worrisome growth of for-profit colleges--a corrupt, variable-quality, expensive choice targeted at low-income and minority students with little experience in higher education.

I worked really hard on the piece. My first draft(s) had too much information in it and not enough of an argument, which I struggled to refine; it's not perfectly there yet, I feel like I could write a whole series on the subject. For example, I didn't really go into the way that class issues come to bear on the quality of education offered to people. I have been reading Slate for a long time but I haven't mastered the way their writers give a neat fillip to an argument. It seems you need a provocative thesis or partisan slant or at least amusing writing--preferably all three--to maneuver boring information over the threshold of an increasingly sated and jaded audience. Who knew?

Who's the Dope Fiend--You or Dad?

It's already a Most-Emailed story in the New York Times:
For a sizable group of people in their 20's and 30's, deciding on their own what drugs to take - in particular, stimulants, antidepressants and other psychiatric medications - is becoming the norm.

Provocative! Those irresponsible kids!

Except, the generational frame of this story has no basis in fact, and is probably wrong. Witness this LA Times story from last month (based on actual statistics):

Californians age 40 and older are dying of drug overdoses at double the rate recorded in 1990, a little-noticed trend that upends the notion of hard-core drug use as primarily a young person's peril.
Indeed, overdoses among baby boomers are driving an overall increase in drug deaths so dramatic that soon they may surpass automobile accidents as the state's leading cause of nonnatural deaths.
In 2003, the latest year for which the state has figures, a record 3,691 drug users died, up 73% since 1990. The total surpassed deaths from firearms, homicides and AIDS.
Remarkably, the rate of deadly overdoses among younger users over that period has slightly declined, while the rate among those 40 and older has jumped from 8.6 to 17.3 per hundred thousand people. Since older people are more likely to have health coverage, use more presecriptions, and have more money to spend, AND are more likely to abuse drugs, doesn't it follow that this pill-trading behavior is at least cross-generational?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

Give it to the Needy and not the Greedy

This week's GenDebt column is about the National Tuition Endowment, a plan by and for students to take money from student lenders and give it out in scholarships. As you can guess I think this is a terrible idea. Just kidding.

Student Debt Alert

A new project from the state PIRGs, Student Debt Alert features the personal stories of 500 kids at 10 schools. Similar to what the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has been doing for a couple of years, except their Wall of Debt is physical, is built in the capital, and has 4,000 people on it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Bit of Good News

The Raid on Student Aid was postponed yesterday after Republican lawmakers admitted they didn't have the votes to pass the $51 billion in cuts to social programs, which includes $14.3 billion in cuts to student loan programs.

Seattle P-I : Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., said the budget bill "is still a work in progress" and he still opposes some of its provisions. But he acknowledged that resistance to ANWR drilling unified the GOP moderates in challenging the leadership. "One thread that held us together on this was ANWR. We knew if we could hold together on ANWR all these other provisions would be subject to much closer scrutiny,"

Inside Higher Ed: Several lawmakers noted that they’d heard from students or college officials concerned about the cuts. Way to go, guys!

And now, the bad news: There's one more week in the session, meaning the Higher Ed Act has little or no chance of being reauthorized this year (The last "five-year" reauthorization was in 1998.) Pell grants will continue to be underfunded.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

France Eats its Young? What about US?

Thought-provoking piece on the economic roots of the French riots--specifically, the lack of job opportunities for young people, especially minorities. "Among the young, immigrant men who live in satellite slums, unemployment reaches 40 percent."

I disagree with Elisabeth Eaves' diagnosis, though. She says the problem is that the minimum wage is too high--about $10/hr--and there are too many social protections; those already ensconced within the system keep voting for benefits for themselves, even if it strangles productivity. I'm no economist, but we don't have either of those "problems" here in America, and we're not exactly bursting with opportunities for youth either: Half the Black men in New York City aged 16+ are unemployed. Actually worse than these boys who are out burning cars.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Quit Lit

My acquaintance Izzy Grinspan delves into this subgenre of chick lit ,aka "job horror," which exposes the crappy working conditions so many 20somethings have to deal with, albeit as the background of glamour-obsessed frothy romance. Not exactly Sister Carrie, but a bit of social realism nonetheless.

NYU Grad Students Strike

Here's an amateur photo album of the NYU grad students ON STRIKE TODAY. They had the only grad student union at a private college until their contract expired August 31. In my interpretation, a 2004 decision against students at Brown emboldened the university to ask for a lot of concessions in the new contract, prompting this strike.

Is a union the best solution for graduate student teachers and adjuncts? I confess I'm torn on the issue. I think they deserve better pay and working conditions, but what everyone really wants is to go back to the apprenticeship system with tenure jobs for everybody at the other end, and that's just not going to happen.

A More Diverse, Less Educated, Poorer Future

This new report, "As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality," proves a simple syllogism. 1) By 2020 there will be twice as many minority workers (Hispanic and black), or 37 % of the workforce. 2) Blacks and Hispanics are far less educated than whites. 3) Either we close the racial disparities OR we get ready for a less educated, less competitive workforce with lower earnings.

Summarizes the Chronicle:
if the current educational gap continues, the proportion of the work force with a college education, or even a high-school diploma, would decrease, the report says. The proportion of the work force with less than a high-school diploma would rise to 18.5 percent from 16.1 percent in 2000, and the proportion with a bachelor's degree would fall to 16.4 percent from 17.1 percent....
The drop in the share of the work force with college degrees would also lead to a 2-percent fall in personal per-capita income, from $21,591 in 2000 to $21,196 in 2020, in constant dollars. During the previous 20-year period, that figure grew by 41 percent.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Women "To Come"

Ratio of male to female writers at "general interest" magazines: 324 to 99 (i.e. 3:1). Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a deputy editor at Glamour, is taking names, at The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Vanity Fair.
These are the five biggies, the ones that can make or break you as a serious freelance writer, and they pay seriously as well. Personally I have pitched and been shot down at 3 of them, with various degrees of respectfulness.
What does worry me is the lack of an old girl's network. When I look at my personal network of journalistic colleagues and contacts, my own ratio of men to women is about 5 to 1. Many of the women are editors; many have been extremely helpful, even sisterly. Yet of the journalists I personally know around my age who are trying to get taken a little seriously and build a multifaceted career (as opposed to writing sex, fashion, celeb profiles), nearly all of them are men. This dates back to college when my close journalism pals were all boys.
Maybe I need to do a little Maureen Dowd-style friend-making.

Lake Woebegone Kids

Another great media-crit piece from Jack Shafer about stupid, groundless press characterizations of generations. On this USA Today story on Gen Y in the workplace:

"They're young, smart, brash. They may wear flip-flops to the office or listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don't want work to be their life."

A quick scan of buzzwords will tell you all you need to know, really: "multitasking," "tech savvy," "child centered," "high maintenance"...

Shafer adds:
The piece rolls out one generational cliché after another. Scream if you've ever heard one of these gems applied to a previous generation:

[T]his generation—whose members have not yet hit 30—is different from any that have come before. …

This age group is moving into the labor force during a time of major demographic change. …

Unlike the generations that have gone before them, Gen Y has been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance. …

Uncle Sam persecutes old, sick student loan borrower

An online piece for my Gen Debt column:

James Lockhart is a 67-year-old man with diabetes and heart disease currently living in public housing in Seattle. According to the brief before the Supreme Court, between 1984 and 1990 he borrowed $80,000 in federal student loans to attend various college programs. He never graduated nor found employment except for a few months in 1987. In April 2002, the Department of the Treasury officially informed him that his Social Security disability payments, then $874 a month plus $10 in food stamps, would be cut—“offset”--by 15 percent to pay his old student loans. Lockhart found legal help from the nonprofit group Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader.
If these trends persist, and if Lockhart loses his case, the Bush administration won’t have to bother with its plans for reforming Social Security. Benefits will be slashed anyway in 20 years to pay off everyone’s old student debt.

UPDATE: According to the Seattle P-I, "Skeptical Supreme Court justices on Wednesday sharply questioned a Seattle man's claim that the government was wrong to tap his Social Security benefits to pay off long overdue students loans.

The justices appeared unmoved by arguments that James Lockhart, who is disabled, needed all of his $874 monthly check to pay for food and medication."

Monday, November 07, 2005

Workplace? Fairness?

Great, comprehensive site about employee rights and fairness issues, run by a nonprofit of employment lawyers. They'll also help you decide if you have a case to sue your boss.

The evidence that the vast majority of Americans are giving more and getting less from their jobs isn't just clear, it's overwhelming.

The Private Loan Problem

Another great story from Business Week, this one on the growth and danger of private loans. What's up with these guys? Do they take seriously the concept of young people as human capital or something?

For cash-strapped undergrads like Jesse, though, often the biggest problem is securing a loan in the first place. Many haven't yet established good credit, and the majority of private loans require a credit check. And even if "credit-risk" students manage to procure a private loan at a high interest rate, a low-paying first job could mean that monthly student loan repayments gobble up 50% of their salary.

Nevertheless, private loans have proven a valid option for students facing the increasing financial demands of higher education. But it's important that students go into the process with both eyes open -- as well as their wallets.

Thirty and Broke

A great, detailed article in Business Week
gets to the heart of the Gen Debt problem. In fact, it reads like a precis of my book. The only difference is, I also write about the 75% who don't get a college degree. This article, like many, focuses on the 25% who do.

In myriad ways, the economics of being 30 have changed for the worse. A college degree is now the minimum required to find a place in the working world that affords some job satisfaction and material comfort. But it doesn't offer protection against turmoil in the labor market, as it once did. Nor does it guarantee such things as health insurance or a retirement plan. And real earnings for college graduates without an advanced degree have fallen four years in a row, for the first time since the 1970s.

Paige belongs to the first generation that came of age with the Internet, grew up marketed to at every turn, is too young to remember the Vietnam War, Watergate, or the Beatles: There are all kinds of ways to describe today's 30-year-olds. But what may really come to distinguish them is that they could be the most indebted generation in modern history.

Two new economic realities are at work. Many had to borrow serious money to attend colleges that are ever more costly. And as soon as they entered school, they were offered credit cards; by 30 many have accumulated thousands of dollars of that very expensive debt, too. Imprudent choices sometimes have compounded their troubles. The consequences can be profound: Many of those 30-year-olds feeling unduly burdened by their financial obligations have had to make compromises on some of life's vital decisions.

National Tuition Endowment Premieres Legislation

"Students nationwide mobilize to return the $30 billion dollars of waste in the federal aid system to students by writing the National Tuition Endowment Act."

This project started at Columbia U. Lots of info/background research at the site, and
find the full text here:


To establish a National Tuition Endowment using the income and savings generated from the federal student financial aid system to provide grants to students. ..

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Counter-recruitment Resources

I got some rather angry emails for my counterrecruitment column, I guess from the 37% of Americans who still support Bush and the war in Iraq. Apparently it is "socialist" of me to think that high school kids in Washington Heights should have something to do after school besides dressing up and playing Army.
Anyway, a few people also wrote asking for more information on counterrecruitment. Here are a few links:
The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors ( is a great place to start.
Also try the Campus Antiwar Network (, Leave My Child Alone ( which is for the opt-out campaign for high schoolers, and the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, which is having a national Not Your Soldier day of action November 17.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Washington Post editorial on student loan & the budget

"The Senate is likely to vote today on a budget reconciliation measure in which the largest source of "savings" by far comes from the student loan program.
Should anyone on the Hill care to point it out, there is an obvious source of genuine savings in the student loan program: Offer students small incentives to choose direct over subsidized loans. But are there fiscal conservatives, in either party, who are willing to risk the wrath of lenders and say so?"

Dream World

Bush says: "What's the biggest threat to the American way of life? It's not terrorism--it's having an uneducated and undercompetitive population floundering in the global economy!"

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Student Loan Resistance

These two sites, Student Loan Hell and Student Loan Slave, are great grassroots community resources for those angry/depressed/can't-take-it-anymore about student debt.

That's good, but we'll need millions

"WASHINGTON, D.C. - Hundreds of college students rallied on Capitol Hill today in opposition to a plan by Republican leaders in Congress to make over $14 billion in cuts - the largest cuts ever - to the nation's student aid programs. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the House education committee, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a member of the education committee, joined the student rally."

Monday, October 31, 2005

Fighting the War at Home

My latest Gen Debt column focuses on counterrecruitment, which has grown into a huge national movement. For a look at the other side, read this extremely friendly profile in the NYT of a successful Army recruiter in Harlem. He keeps himself in "diamond stud earrings, vintage X-Men comic books and sports jerseys that can cost up to $400 apiece" by sending his fellow poor and working-class Hispanics to Iraq.

Sarcasm becomes reality

From the hed and lede of my story about grad students' woes, which appeared last spring:

Wanted: Really Smart Suckers: Grad school provides exciting new road to poverty.
Here's an exciting career opportunity you won't see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment...

From the Burlington Free Press and Rutland Herald next week, as part of Campus Equity Week:
College Faculty Wanted
Individuals to teach part time at the college level...No health care, subsidized pension or other benefits. No recall rights or any other form of job security guaranteed...Part-time instructors will have no paid office hours, no academic freedom protections and will not participate in department meetings.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

For Halloween, a scary glimpse of the future

When you get old, the government can take your social security payments to pay off your old delinquent student loans.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Tuition Gone Wild ? catches on to "Generation Debt."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Galley Cat

I got five colorful, neat, smooth copies of my book in the mail today. Well, the galleys, anyway. They are my personal copies-- a few dozen others will be going out to editors, reviewers, academics I interviewed, friends in the journalism business, some famous writers I admire, and my folks.
Picking up this small object which represents a year and a half of work was a truly surreal experience. I almost don't want to look at them--I can't believe the pub date is almost here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is College Worth It?

Interesting article in the Chronicle last week by William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Generations and Millennials Rising. Title: The High Cost of College: An Increasingly Hard Sell.
Great quote:

Many [Gen-Xers, as parents of college kids] will ask whether student loans are, in fact, "financial aid" or rather just an inducement to enroll — much as car loans are not "car aid" but a mere inducement to buy a car.

Another great quote:
The longstanding assumption about the collegiate earnings premium is due for a high-stakes reassessment in this new era of high tuition, high debt, and parents with a keen eye on the bottom line.

New Advocacy Group

The Student Aid Alliance is a new coalition of dozens of college, professor, and student groups in Washington trying to "Stop the Raid on Student Aid."

Student Loan Cuts Get Even Bigger

From my Chronicle of Higher Ed news email this morning:

* REPUBLICAN LEADERS of the House education committee unveiled a bill on Tuesday that would trim up to $15-billion from the government's student-loan programs over the next five years. The reductions would meet the panel's obligations as part of a broader Congressional effort to reduce the federal budget deficit. -->
The new cuts are mostly more expensive consolidation and taking money from the direct-loan program.

* DIRECT LENDING TO COLLEGE STUDENTS has cost taxpayers more than originally forecast, but still, per loan, it has cost one-fifth of what guaranteed lending has over the past decade, according to a Government Accountability Office report released belatedly on Tuesday.
UPDATE: Here's the link to that GAO report.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mau-Mauing the Non-College Kids

Tonight I was invited to cover a reception for Generation Engage, a new organization, founded 10 months ago, that aims to involve non-college 18 to 24 year olds--the "forgotten half"--in the political process.

Now, having attended Yale, I developed a tolerance--even a sympathy--for the children of the rich and illustrious. They have an uphill battle to convince anyone that they ought to be taken seriously. But when you are two sons of one macher (in this case Adrian and Devin Talbott, sons of Strobe Talbott), is it such a good idea to recruit Justin Rockefeller (son of Sen. Jay) and Cate Edwards (daughter of former Sen. John) as your co-leaders?
And then, when you hold your big fundraising reception in the Ralph Lauren store, full of beautiful preppy clothing and beautiful preppy cater-waiters? Where the overheard conversation sounds like this: "blah blah blah St. Albans. blah blah blah Shah of Iran"? Where not a single invited guest appears to be, themselves, a non-college young person? And have David Lauren (son of Ralph) welcome everyone? Where your keynote speaker, President Bill Clinton opens, "I have known Devin and Adrian since they were infants, so I would have been here no matter what"? Well, it becomes really hard to take you seriously.

I repeat, I think the basic idea of what they are doing, and the people they are targeting, are great, although I find the staunchly nonpartisan, civic engagement model a bit wan and tepid next to bolder partisan efforts on the left and right. Even Rock the Vote , nominally nonpartisan, has not been afraid to get out there on the issues that actually affect young people.

Still, Gengage says they are in this for the long haul, not just one election cycle, and that will give them time to refine their approach and see what works. Maybe they will find the right issues to draw in young people. Above all, they have the money and connections to bring attention to the issue, at least the kind of fleeting, polite attention that money and connections can buy.

And I have to confess, I don't normally cover parties, or the type of politics that is conducted via handshakes and small talk. It might just be me who is naively expecting some congruence between the venue and atmosphere of a $300-per-person event and the cause it is ostensibly furthering. I think the off-key feeling for me could be summed up in this exchange with a young member of Generation Engage. I said I heard about the group when I got an email from Justin Rockefeller, "who had seen this article I wrote for the Washington Post." "Oh," he said, smiling. "Did you go to school with Justin?"

Monday, October 24, 2005

The American Dream

These guys sent me a sweet email yesterday. They are 4 22 and 23-year-olds driving around the country in an RV taking the pulse of Americans 18 to 25. They have corporate sponsors but seemingly not a corporate agenda, and they're working on a documentary, a blog & a book.

"The focus is on the way young people view their world and what their hopes are for America, for their community, and for themselves."

Man, I wish I was driving through Montana right now instead of stuck in Manhattan in the middle of the rainiest October on record.

Putting off Grad School: Not So Bad

From the Times, a not too judgmental story about the gap years that kids are taking after college to travel, do community service, work outdoors, etc:
"These are not necessarily unfocused people who are putting off launching,"
says a careers office guy from Harvard. "Often they have a plan and they have three or four things in mind that they want to experiment with." Cultural patterns have changed, too, with fewer people getting married immediately after college and fewer taking jobs with companies at which they expect to work for their entire careers, said Lisa Severy, director of career services at the University of Colorado.
The mind-set for many students is "you get your degree and then you think about what you might want to do," she said.

Of course, the story assumes that these kids are headed back to graduate school within a few years. It would be nice if they found at least one person who decided she wants to keep being a potter in New Mexico.
My friend Colleen Kinder wrote a whole book about this, called Delaying the Real World.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Student Loan Scamming

From the Washington Post today, sent by a friend at the Project on Student Debt:

...loopholes in student loan law that still permit a practice known as "recycling," which allows lenders to keep earning a very high 9.5 percent interest rate from the government on new loans...If senators are concerned about students, they should end double subsidies for lenders and give the money to students directly, in the form of Pell Grants. They could also support legislation backed by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to retrieve some of the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, completely needlessly, on this scam.
While they're at it, House members should put pressure on Mr. Boehner to release the Government Accountability Office report on student loan costs that he commissioned in January.

Way to go, guys!

Money quote of the day

From the Times' review of "Shopgirl," starring my old college classmate Claire Danes:

With her student loans, her futon furniture, her poky pickup truck and the antidepressants in her medicine cabinet, Mirabelle could be one of countless recent college graduates fumbling through early adulthood in the drifting, wanting state that sociologists used to call anomie.

Debt, a crappy retail job, cheap furniture and an old car. You call that "anomie"? I call that poverty, you patronizing old ...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Low Wage...and Sexy

I was with a friend looking at those stupid Halloween costumes yesterday: sexy nurse, sexy stewardess, sexy devil, sexy cat. All of a sudden, there she was: a sexy...barista. Very short apron and hat in Starbucks green.

Young women toiling in low-wage, no-benefit service jobs behind counters all over America, rejoice: you are now officially fetish objects.

Update: Nina Lalli of the Voice onthe stupidness of sexy costumes.

Students Speak Up

From the Chronicle:

Students at 60 colleges across the United States made more than 1,000 telephone calls to members of Congress on Wednesday to protest proposed cuts in the federal government's student-loan programs.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Stuffing The Numbers

Direct loans--student loans lent directly by the federal government--are more efficient and 12 times cheaper for taxpayers than the loans that Sallie Mae earns billions on. The banks' profits basically = federal subsidies. The government's own numbers, in a report released September 29, say so. And Congress is keeping that report secret until October 28--2 days after the HEA goes back to the House committee, quite possibly for more cuts to student loans. The whole story, plus an alert to write your Congressperson, is at Student Loan Watch.

Why wouldn't Congress want an estimated $17 to $60 billion in free money to apply toward more student aid? The same $reason$ Congress tends to pass laws that favor other highly profitable corporations. See this Chronicle of Higher Education investigation for details:

.... over the last year and a half, officials with the loan industry and proprietary institutions [for-profit colleges] have given, individually and through political-action committees, or PAC's, almost $1 million in campaign contributions to the 49 members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, according to Federal Election Commission records through the end of May. More than half of the money, about $540,000, has gone to the two Republican lawmakers in charge of drafting the higher-education legislation -- Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who heads the full committee, and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, who leads the panel's subcommittee on higher education.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Trend in Student Aid: Downward

The new annual report by the College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2005, came out today.
A factoid from the press release:
Between 1996-97 and 2001-02, total grant aid for undergraduates grew twice as fast as total borrowing, but since 2001-02, that pattern has reversed. In 2004-05, the percentage of total undergraduate aid in the form of grants declined for the third year in a row.

Here's some comments by Bob Shireman of the Project on Student Debt.
The College Board report shows that the trends in how Americans pay for college continue to tilt heavily toward loans. The largest increase is in private loans, which rose by about 30 percent in just one year, a strong indicator that more families are finding that they have little choice but to borrow in order to cover the rising cost of college.
The College Board report documents the continued rise of loans and the relative decline of need-based grants, meaning that the people who struggle hardest to get a college education have fewer and fewer options.

Your Crappy Summer Job--now on Reality TV

On MTV, psyched college girls are competing in "Miss Seventeen," a reality show where the prize internship at Seventeen magazine. Forget the retro, sexist overtones of the whole pageant idea. In this junior miss version of the Apprentice, after all the no-doubt humiliating stunts they'll have to pull, couldn't the prize be an actual, paying job?

From the Seventeen website:
Only college students, eligible to receive school credit for their work are accepted. The internship is unpaid.

Student Borrowers Lose Out in Budget Process

As my last column pointed out, Katrina may lead to even more cuts to student aid, now through emergency "budget reconciliation" bills.

From a MoveOn email this morning:
Emergency campaign to save health care, student loans, and pensions
Here's a brief description of the budget process: Last spring, Congress passed a budget and tax blueprint calling for three major changes: $35 billion in cuts to vital national services, $70 billion in new tax cuts, largely for the wealthy, and an additional $35 billion tacked onto the deficit. This was bad policy before Katrina, but now it's a catastrophe. Responsible leaders on both sides of the aisle have called for canceling this process, called "budget reconciliation," in light of the cost and increased need created by the hurricane.
But instead of changing course, top Republicans are now using Katrina to argue for $15 billion in additional cuts to the services that the hurricane victims and other vulnerable Americans depend on the most.

From a press release today by the US Students Association and the State PIRG's Higher Education Project:
...the reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act continues to be defined by a budget resolution that is at odds with the goals of the Act. As you know, many of America’s students and families find themselves struggling with college debt and affordability. Yet the budget resolution and reconciliation process asks that students, already in a financial hole, dig deeper.
Given the challenges facing students we believe it is imperative not to pay for tax cuts and disaster relief out of their pockets. Where efficiencies and savings can be identified in the student loan programs, we ought to direct these savings to students and to making higher education more affordable.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Speaking for The Forgotten Half

I've emailed back and forth with Justin Rockefeller, who has founded a new nonprofit called Generation Engage, which is refreshingly focused on getting non-college youth involved with politics.
from the site:
As young Americans – new voters, emerging professionals, and members of the rising labor force – the future at stake is our own. The policies, issues, and values debated by our nation’s leaders determine the quality of jobs available to us, the laws that govern our lives, the security of our nation, and the kind of America where we will raise our children.

from New York magazine:
We’re targeting young people who aren’t in college. We hope to hire young community leaders in every state to do things like identify local hot spots—Internet cafés, bars, pool halls—and turn them into places where people talk politics.

John Edwards wants College for Everyone

An interview with the former senator on, a great all-around resource for political motivation. If you are a young progressive, check it out.
Glad to see him highlighting access to higher education as a crucial part of his general anti-poverty message.

We were also wondering if you could talk to us about your College for Everyone program in North Carolina that you launched a few weeks ago.
This is an idea that I talked about in my own presidential campaign. The idea is that any young person who has taken college prep work, who is qualified to go to college, and has stayed out of trouble, and is willing to go to work ten hours a week [will] be able to go their first year of college completely for free—tuition books etc, paid for. And what we’ve done to test the validity of this idea is found a place in eastern North Carolina , one the poorest counties in North Carolina , but the community is committed to doing something about their kids having a chance. And what we’ve done is, in Greene County , privately, we’ve raised the money for it to implement the program. In Greene County if you have taken all the prep courses, not gotten into trouble and commit to work ten hours a week, then your tuition and books will be paid for. The idea is many young persons who would not have gone to college will get a chance to go.

Privatization of Public Higher Education

From the Times this morning:

Taxpayer support for public universities, measured per student, has plunged more precipitously since 2001 than at any time in two decades, and several university presidents are calling the decline a de facto privatization of the institutions that played a crucial role in the creation of the American middle class.

It's not like we have to wonder what a fully private higher education system would be like. For the rich: luxury brand names like Swarthmore or St. John's College, at luxury prices:
$27, 516/yr average in 2004. Yes, there's loans and yes, there's scholarships for the lucky few strivers. For everyone else: Shady, Scandal-ridden for-profit colleges at a still-steep average price of around $12,000 a year.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

More on the Spellings Higher Education Commission

I was interviewed for this article on the website of Higher Education Washington, which publishes a newsletter on student lending and other insiderish info. Bryn Lansdowne actually talked to the members of the commission, which is more than I did before I wrote my Tom Paine piece. David Ward, of the American Council on Education, astutely identified the main topic before him and the rest of these guys: the public interest in higher education.

...The question of private versus public gain in higher education institutions needs to be addressed by the commission.“No one really knows what that proportion should be,” Ward said. Ward, the only representative of mainstream higher education policy [that's taken from my article, by the way],

said he plans to keep the public sector in mind during his membership on the committee.“I am much more alert to the interests of higher education, which often involves the public interest,” Ward said.

College is a public good. The benefits accrue not only to the graduate, but to her family and her community. In this way, college is sort of the mirror opposite of prison. As Jennifer Gonnerman has movingly written about, when someone goes off to prison, his mother loses a son, his child loses a father, his community loses a worker, and he loses time. All at a cost to the state of $25,000 a year--five times the average public university tuition.

Future of the Housing Market?

This NYT Mag cover story about McMansion developers is notable for this prediction about the state of housing for Gen Debt (ok, a little younger):

In the past couple of years, [home building exec Bob] Toll and his deputies have begun analyzing European housing data to see if they hold any lessons for a maturing American housing market. ..I asked Toll what our children - my kids are both under 8, I told him - would be paying when they're ready to buy. "They're going to live with us until they're 40," Toll said matter-of-factly. "And when they have their second kid, then we'll finally kick them out and make them pay for the house that we paid for. And that house will cost them 45 to 50 percent of their income."
I grew alarmed. Was he kidding? He assured me he was not...And that average, million-dollar insane home in the burbs? It's going to be $4 million."

I am writing this blog post from my 275-sq-ft! 1-bedroom in downtown Manhattan. Half the rent on this place is a third of my income (I actually pay a little less; my fiance pays more). To buy a place of a reasonable size in this neighborhood would start at 7 times our income and go up from there.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Yay Boston!

I'm honored to be featured in a little piece in the Boston Phoenix, the alt-weekly, about "10 journalists under 35 to watch" or some such. It's an interesting and eclectic bunch--I was especially intrigued by the new-media guys like Adrian Holovaty and Matt Thompson .
Not only is the first time I've been the subject of an article, it's the first time anyone has identified me as a blogger. I guess that's a milestone.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

New Project on Student Debt

It's not like we had a great national debate about whether we wanted to impose huge debts on young people. We just woke up one morning and it had happened. -- Pat Callan President, National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education

This great quote is one of many to be found on the new website for the Project on Student Debt. Finally, we have a serious research nonprofit devoted to the cause of excessive student loans and their impact on higher education. I expect to be linking to them often in the future.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Counterrecruiter Confrontations

In a preview of my next weeks' column, Inside Higher Ed reports on two campus confrontations between military recruiters and protesters that led to intervention by campus police and later, bigger, protests. What interests me? The 2 campuses were George Mason University, a large public university in Virginia* with over 29,000 students , and Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA. Here you have a student movement that evidently reaches young people of widely varied social backgrounds and political stripes**.
*This post originally, erroneously said "west virginia," and two commenters pointed out that the university in question is actually located in a fairly liberal part of VA. Point taken. You can read more about the confrontation in question here; the campus newspaper seems fairly sympathetic to the arrested guy, and another student is organizing a counterprotest on his behalf.
**I would hate to be the one to characterize the South as monolithically Republican. My larger point, which I think still holds, is the economic difference between university and community college students, who have nonetheless both found a common cause. In the New York area, there have been actions at Columbia U and Bronx Community College.

Financial Crises at CUNY, SUNY

According to this NYT article, New York's public universities are in deep financial trouble. From the president of the faculty union:

"We have reached the point of crisis,"

"Students are paying almost 50 percent of the operating costs," she said. "Professors have not had a raise in four years. Our salaries are not keeping pace. And we can't recruit new faculty."

According to state data, students at CUNY's four-year colleges paid less than $1,500 in tuition and fees in 1990, while the state provided $7,023 per student. In 2003, tuition and fees had risen to $4,300 while the state subsidy per student had fallen to $5,846.

There is no room in the 4-year public colleges for increasing numbers of community college students who want to transfer and get their bachelor's degree. SUNY is the country's largest public university system, with 400,000+ students.

This story points up something people don't often realize about higher education operating costs: the extent to which subsidies diminish the costs to students. Without increased public support for higher education, we could be looking at another doubling of the tuition charges in the next ten years.
PS: CUNY's union is talking strike.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

College Loan News

A good blog.

Getting Closer

I went over the copy editor's remarks and put in some last changes to the manuscript on Thursday--all day long, at the Riverhead office. I'm so excited for the book to really come out. Less than four months now.
The opening piece in the New York Times Magazine today was all like, "What's up with this emerging adulthood thing? Isn't it just an artifact of the Boomers' alarmist perception of young people?" Which is good as far as it goes. But all too familiarly, the writer, Ann Hulbert, whose most common subject is parenthood, glosses over the political and economic aspects of the phenomenon, in the final paragraph, thus:

[Turn of the century writer Randolph Bourne] went on to make a point that seems especially relevant these days, when college kids are saddled with debt - an adult experience if ever there was one - and young people are juggling jobs and lives in unscripted ways. For 25-year-olds looking back on life since 17, Bourne reflected, there are "so many crises, so many startling surprises, so many vivid joys and harrowing humiliations and disappointments, that one feels startlingly old; one wonders if one will ever feel so old again."

I can certainly relate to the description of the emotional state of being 25--the age I am today. Yet I think Hulbert makes a serious mistake to separate the effect (young people vague, unfocused) from the underlying causes (college debt, juggling jobs). It's like saying, oh, those Dust Bowl Okies! So unrooted! So confused! Such nomads!
Of course, that's just why I'm writing this book.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

US Military Recruits--Getting Dumber?

Smart story on Slate about an ominous US Military decision to lower the academic and mental aptitude standards for its recruits. They're doing this because they're running way low on recruits (my next Voice column is about the counterrecruitment movement, which takes some credit for that). Currently, contrary to popular perception, the ranks of the Army are comparable in racial/ethnic mix and academic achievement to the population of 18-24 year olds as a whole (although the recruits do differ from the gen population in geographic distribution, of course gender proportion, and most importantly class.)

The unpopularity of the war has forced the military into a corner. Either lower the quality of recruits (which they're trying now) introduce a draft (which Fred Kaplan says could happen only in a "genuine national emergency"-it may be sooner than we think) or go to the Bush administration and say we can't maintain current military commitments. What you would prefer may depend on the probability that you might find yourself on the front lines.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Katrina and College Aid

My latest column looks at how the hurricane has affected higher education. To me, the most shocking part of this story is not the shortsightedness of federal aid but the haphazard nature of the budget process. Basically, because the higher education act happens to still be up for debate, the Senate decides to scoop some more money out of it and put it into the new Katrina pot, because it's just easier than, say, reopening the pork-stuffed transportation bill.
Maybe I'm really naive, but this is dumb.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bad Education: A Response

I wanted to respond to the following comment on my Tom Paine piece:
Anya, I very much enjoy your writing. In this article, you write: "He's up against Richard Vedder of the American Enterprise Institute, an economist who has written a book and testified before Congress on his very convenient view that federal student aid is bad for affordability, because it encourages colleges to raise prices, and should therefore be curbed immediately." Doesn't Mr. Vedder's view have a great deal of credibility? If possible, please say a little more about why you disagree with Mr. Vedder. Thanks.

Dr. Richard Vedder is a conservative economist at Ohio State University (American Enterprise Institute, National Review) who describes his theory of why college costs so much in his book Going Broke by Degree and in this testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He argues that there are inefficiencies in the higher education market. The ready availability of federal student aid makes students insensitive to price increases, which short-circuits the normal process of competition on price, and in turn encourages colleges to raise their tuition year after year without providing comparable improvements in quality.

I might be willing to agree with him, to a point. I think inefficiencies arise in the higher education market because students and parents are not fully informed about lower-cost college options, such as public vs. private schools, distance learning, vocational schools, and community colleges, and social stigmas also prevent people from shopping around. Also, the average higher education "customer" is not very well informed about the relationship between the tuition bill and the education they're getting, which allows schools to raise prices basically with impunity. Finally, the sources of funding and directions of spending for the average public university are so varied that it would be surprising if inefficiencies did not creep in--universities are often spending money on nonessential programs that don't serve the needs of their communities, and everyone likes to complain that bureaucracy and admin costs have gone out of control. I even agree with Vedder that it might not be a bad idea to put even more federal education aid in the hands of students, as a kind of voucher system.

Where Dr. Vedder and I differ fundamentally is in our views of the nature and purpose of higher education. Dr. Vedder complains that universities do not resemble businesses. "There is no clearly defined "bottom line" in traditional universities," he writes. "Did Stanford University have a good or bad year in 2003? How would we know?"
To me, one of the major values of our university system is its nonprofit, noncommercial status.
The university is one of the only institutions we have left in this society that is a truly public sphere. An institution like Stanford ought to measure its performance goals in generations, not in a single year.
Secondly, Dr. Vedder actually suspects that higher education's "negative externalities" may outweigh its "positive externalities." That is, the bad effects of universities, like higher taxes and the occasional campus riot, are worse than the effects of producing skilled workers, nourishing pure scholarship, shaping future citizens. I wish I could say that he is making this argument facetiously, for if not, why does he not resign his own senior faculty position? (I note he is teaching no classes this year, a deplorable example of the general productivity decline of which he complains.)

To sum up:
I don't want a guy making decisions about higher education at the highest level who doesn't see the difference between a university and a business, and I reiterate that it's very convenient for Spellings to appoint someone who thinks increased federal aid is a bad idea, whereas the vast majority of people in the field think it's called for.