Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hurricane Katrina


I grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. My family moved to New Orleans in 1993 and I have always considered it my home. I'm getting married there next fall. I'm having trouble even imagining the devastation that has struck the city in the past two days--no power for a month! 100,000 people without homes! Please, if you are reading this, consider donating to the Red Cross.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Private Universities: Rolling Naked in Cash?

A senior at NYU wants to photograph a fellow student naked and covered with $32,000 in cash on a dorm room mattress. The cash represents the high price of tuition, room and board at the private university.

Young People--Passive?

I had an editorial in the Washington Post's Outlook section yesterday. I was asked to do a piece on youthful idealism and activism, somehow addressing the question "Where's the passion?" I ended up positing that the young people of today are just as active, on a per-capita basis, as the youth movement of the '60s to whom we are endlessly compared, but our emphasis is different, plus we are not getting the same attention because the boomers are still the star of the show.

It was an interesting experience, since I don't usually write straight-up editorials; revisions were mainly aimed at getting my voice into the story more. It was fun writing for a national paper; I got over 40 emails from people of all ages, most of which have been positive. All in all, though, it reminded me why I feel more comfortable doing reporting and relying on facts and artfully presented details. When you start writing straight advocacy journalism, it feels good to come out and say what you think (the war was a mistake). But you are inevitably standing on shaky ground when you base your arguments on things like opinion polls and the number of people who marched down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago in 1968.
I think I would like to leave that stuff to the professional opinion mongerers. Not that I don't have plenty of theories to share.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Private Loans Suck

From the Newhouse News Service today:

Proliferating Private Loans Put Crushing Burden on Students
With the cost of higher education skyrocketing and federal student loans capped at 1992 levels, more students are turning to private loans to pay for trade schools and even traditional colleges. The loans are the fastest growing type of student aid, and lenders are scurrying to cash in on the highly profitable products, offering easy online access or jockeying to get on a school's list of preferred lenders.
The trend alarms financial aid advisers who fear students are unwittingly taking on too much debt. Some, like Perry, eventually fail to repay the loans on time. That trend could worsen if interest rates continue to rise.

Some trade schools have deliberately pushed private loans to expand their market to students with poor credit histories, and they're coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny about their recruiting and loan disclosure practices.
Financial aid counselors worry that students unwittingly get themselves too deep in debt with private loans and will default in coming years, particularly if they get a low-wage job or go through a protracted layoff.

Interest rates on these loans can go as high as 26.5% !!! And students (and parents) often don't know the difference between these private loans and regular federal loans.

College Groups Say: Change HEA!

Seven groups representing colleges have issued a position paper asking the Senate to come up with a better version of HEA reauthorization than the House did. Their priorities are this:

The Ed Dept. is supposed to cut $13 billion. $11 billion of that is currently coming from programs that help kids pay for college. Only $2 billion is coming out of teachers' pensions; surely you can think of a more equitable distribution.

The House bill favors for-profit schools and includes a couple of sneaky changes that will make direct loans look more expensive vis-a-vis private loans. Who benefits from that? That's right, the lenders, higher education's biggest lobbyists.

I'll be interested to see what the Senate comes up with.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Selling the Army

I predict military recruitment and counterrecruitment will grow to a major national issue in the coming year. It's urgent, not just because young people are fighting and dying in an unjust war, but because of the hole it shows in America's priorities: Instead of investment in and opportunity for young people, the best-funded arm of the government offers enlistment.
Today, here is Seth Stevenson in Slate on the new Army commercials: lame and disingenuous. And here is Bob Herbert in the Times:

The youngsters recruited most relentlessly are those from small towns, rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods. They are kids who are not well-to-do, and who don't have much of a plan for their future. The military, with its uniforms, its slick ads and its video games, can look very good to these unsophisticated youngsters.

With a series of television ads, the Army is also trying to win over what it calls the "influencers," the parents and other adults who have been counseling youngsters to stay away from the military. That campaign was packaged by the Leo Burnett agency, which has the following to say about itself:

"Leo Burnett USA creates ideas that inspire enduring belief for many of the world's most valuable brands and most successful marketers, including McDonald's, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Marlboro, Altoids, Heinz, Kellogg, Nintendo and the U.S. Army."

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Ted Kennedy on New Student Loan Bill

A guest op-ed by the Democratic senator on the advantages of direct loans over Sallie Mae et al.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Half of Freshmen Unprepared

And we're not talking about a lack of extra long twin sheets. According to the New York Times:

Only about half of this year's high school graduates have the reading skills they need to succeed in college, and even fewer are prepared for college-level science and math courses, according to a yearly report from ACT, which produces one of the nation's leading college admissions tests.
The report, based on scores of the 2005 high school graduates who took the exam, some 1.2 million students in all, also found that fewer than one in four met the college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects tested: reading comprehension, English, math and science.

You can see what Bill Gates means when he says America's high schools are obsolete and are ruining the lives of millions of young Americans every day.

Bills Arrive With No New Aid

With the reauthorization of the Higher Ed Act a year or two late now, families are getting the bills for another year of school with no more aid. According to this press relase, AlternativeStudentLoans.com is ready to help! Just watch out when you borrow from these banks--the interest rates are higher than with federal loans and they often offer fewer repayment options.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Student Debt Promoted to Serious National Concern

From a press release in my inbox this morning:

The Pew Charitable Trusts announces the Partnership to Reduce the Burden
of Student Debt. The two-year, $3.5 million initiative joins the
Trusts-funded Retirement Security Project as part of the Trusts' focus
on issues related to family financial security...

Working with other funders and non-profit organizations, the
Partnership to Reduce the Burden of Student Debt will collaborate with
leading experts from across the nation to conduct nonpartisan research
and analysis and identify practical policy options and ways to pay for
them with current taxpayer dollars.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

$11 Billion Student Aid Cut

My new column highlights the biggest proposed cuts to federal student aid in the 40-yr history of the program. If you are a student or concerned parent, call your Senator starting at the end of this month.

All Wrong Again on Gen Debt

"Babies of the boomers are going bust," laments the Cox News Service . Great, they're finally getting it, I think hopefully. Think again. Once more it's a story about "spoiled" kids spending too much: "It's part consumer culture brainwashing, part entitlement."

Consumption patterns are simply an insufficient and wrongheaded explanation for the inferior economic standing of young people. People are graduating with $20,000+ in student loan debt and real income that's stagnant or declining compared with 30 years ago. I'd like to believe that solving the problems of Generation Debt was as easy as telling people to cut up their credit cards, but it just ain't so.

In a way, this story itself is the product of consumer culture brainwashing. Just as most people, when they hear the word "save," actually think of spending a (reduced) amount on some product, the Cox News Service finds itself unable to conceive of a debt problem that's not caused by spending too much discretionary income. Where did our nation's prosperity go? We charged too many Jamba Juices. Oops.

Friday, August 12, 2005

How to Pitch a Story

I got three emails this week from acquaintances seeking advice about the whole writing game. I always find this simultaneously flattering and humbling. Flattering, because obviously they think i'm doing something right, and humbling, because I really don't feel all that successful! I'm still starting out and I make mistakes all the time.

Still, i think this could be a good space to answer questions with what I do know. Someone emailed to ask me how you write a pitch.
1) You have to be very familiar with the specific publication, and what they want. Most take queries by email, but some still want a packet of material mailed in, including clips.

2) Make sure you know what editor you're pitching to. You can often derive email addresses from the businesspeople on a publication's masthead ; assume that the address format will be the same for all names listed. As a last resort, you can call and ask who handles what.

3) You need to know whether the publication, or anyone else, has covered your idea before, and if so what makes this version new. The pitch should be fleshed out. It doesn't hurt to make a phone call or two.

4) Pretend your story's already been assigned. How long will the story be? What section will it go in? Mention this in your review.

5) Things that in my opinion are almost impossible to pitch: movie reviews (the lead time is too great), anything involving a celebrity who is not your relative, and some theory you have about something. Things that are great to pitch: A new idea which you have previously overlooked evidence for. A subculture or underworld that you have unique access to. Any story with a compelling main character. Whatever the editor happens to be in the mood for right at that moment.

Other writers: let me know if you have anything to add.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

OR Students Protest Loan Changes

A small protest--2 dozen students--in Portland yesterday about the lame student aid provisions in the new House bill. (Look for my upcoming column about it in the Voice this weekend).

Student groups and higher education lobbyists have been disappointed that lawmakers failed to propose enough aid to keep pace with rising costs and did not take more dramatic steps to reduce government subsidies that flow to lenders.

Oregon PIRG organized the protest. From what legislators' offices tell me, the State Public Interest Research Groups are one of the only real voices for students in Washington. Student-led groups, where are you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Reproduction of Disadvantage

Inside HigherEd, a great resource on all issues higher education, flags a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that being the first in your family to go to college means a much harder road to graduation.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Evidence of Existence

Rachel Kramer Bussel, a fellow Voice columnist, just emailed to say that she saw the book Generation Debt on Amazon.com. Whoa! Exciting. Just $16.47 with Super Saver Shipping! Maybe I can save time on all the editing I'm doing now by preordering a copy!

Kicking High School Students

I think Slate is excellent, and I know they take pride in framing their stories in a contrarian way. But they took this article , about American vs. international test scores, and labeled it "American High School Kids aren't Stupid--They're Lazy."

The point Alexandra Starr is making is a good one: that American students have no incentive to do well on international assessments, so they may not reflect their actual ability as well as ACT scores and state graduation exams do. But illustrating the story with a Mad Magazine caricature of a slouching wastoid kid and calling him "lazy" is just taking another easy knock on kids.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

High School: Could it be Worse?

Crisis in Education Report: Our High Schools May Not Adequately Prepare Dropouts for Unemployment (The Onion, natch)

Some educators say the report paints too bleak a picture of schools' efforts to instill students with a lack of ambition.

"We are doing a terrible, terrible job," said James Dunham, the principal of HS 445 in New York. "We literally could not be doing any worse."

Dunham highlighted the fact that the hallways of his school are lined with vending machines that sell nothing but unhealthy snack products such as soda and potato chips, both of which acclimate students to the diet of a jobless lowlife.

Internal Conflict

My new column, about interns on Capitol Hill, is featured on the Voice home page today. I really enjoyed talking with these driven, ambitious kids. It reminded me that the members of Generation Debt aren't wasting time being angry--they're just anxious about their chances, and hopeful that they'll find their place and do great things.

Big Oops on Consolidation

There was a lot of hype (including mine) about how important it was to consolidate your student loans and lock in that 2.77% rate before it went up. Now this article says that 1000s of students are being charged the new higher rate, possibly for months, while their consolidation applications work their way through the system. The lenders say they're just overwhelmed by the backlog. Sooo convenient.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Squeezing Federal Student Aid

H.R. 609, the bill that would reauthorize the Higher Education Act, passed along strict party lines in House committee Friday. The HEA was originally passed by Lyndon Johnson and contains all the student aid programs we know and love; the current reauthorization is a year overdue (priorities, anyone?). Here's the House Democrats on what's wrong with this bill from a students' p.o.v.; most notably, a nearly $11 billion funding squeeze.