Playground rhymes for our troubled times

Do you remember that little song from the playground game, “Ring around the Rosie” from your childhood?

Ring around the rosie,

A pocket full of posies.

Ashes, ashes:

We all fall down!

Now, I wonder if you learned– even as a child, like I did–that this nonsensical-sounding ditty dated back to the bubonic plague decimating Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

It turns out, the Black Death explanation is apocryphal and didn’t appear until the mid-20th century. Even so, the notion of kids taking notice when the world seems on its way to Hell with an oversized hand basket strikes me as accurate.

I haven’t got a COVID-19 rhyme composed for you today, though I’m now tempted to try my hand at one.Map of Mariupol, Ukraine generated by cell phone GPS app

I did, however, have a politically motivated stab at nasty name-calling in verse! come together in my mind over the past few days. While imperfect–and my apologies to the masterful teacher Michael Clay Thompson, whose MCT Langugage Arts curriculum I used with my home educated child in very recent years, so that I now have the vocabulary to describe how weak my doggerel truly is in form and meter–my not-quite-best self still prompts me to post it here.

I’d also like to ask if others can do better. Please, post your own rhyme in the comments, or tweet away!

I feel as if every child in the free world should have such poems on their lips these days. With luck, the wind will carry them across borders to those less fortunate youngsters growing up under dictators.

The literal future of human freedom lay presently with democratic nations around the world who must confront the warmongering by Russia’s “elected” leader and would-be-czar.

Upon seeing the news report of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9th, 2022, I brought these words together.

Printed text of verse in historical typewriter font: Pathetic Putin, killer of babies. Can’t defeat soldiers so he bombs ladies

I debated posting something so mean-spirited. It goes against the very nature of this blog. Really Wonderful Things tries hard to be a bringer of light, and a force for good, human and wildly imperfect as its author is.

“Pathetic Putin…

What is Really Wonderful, however, is my right to comment on politics and politicians. God bless America, and hurrah for my freedom of speech! We are not perfect, yet I don’t hesitate to write these words or share them with the world. I am safe, though I express a controversial opinion, and in strident tones.

…killer of babies…

A miracle, frankly, if you know much of history.

How grateful I am that this is so… for me. How deeply I wish everyone shared in this good fortune.

…can’t defeat soldiers…

What I hope to accomplish by encouraging innocents to chant insults aimed at distant autocrats is the absolute, utter celebration of democracy and representation for the common individual.

…so he bombs pregnant ladies!”

Every school kid should know that such a system exists, God-willing, right on his or her doorstep. Every free person alive should be teaching those children the rights and responsibilities of an empowered electorate.

We the people of free nations owe every other human being, potential and living, our efforts toward sharing our ultimate luxury.

The people of Ukraine have made clear their disinterest in being re-shackled to their former Soviet masters. The bravery of those defending their homes should serve as a stern reminder for all who hear the news.

Representation is an inalienable right, but it is ultimately a privilege that must be constantly protected from jealous usurpers. The world will never lack for tyrants, in temperament if not in fact.

I stand with Ukraine.

Home education success: elite college acceptance!

For modern, middle class American parents of high school seniors, there can be perhaps no better holiday gift than finding out one’s child has been accepted into the college of his or her choice. Getting the financial aid package one needs to make attendance feasible is often a close second.

My own baby-who-is-now-technically-an-adult received the good news this week. He was accepted Early Decision* to his preferred university. The kid certainly did most of the hard work for this achievement… but, as a home educating parent, I’m going to take at least a small bow for my part.

Together, we took the road less traveled by, and that gamble appears to have paid off. It may not have “made all the difference,” but our unique choices do appear to have impressed the admissions officers in question.

About 3% of U.S. students elected home education over the past decade, except during the pandemic, when the rate jumped to an unprecedented 11.1%. (Source: Census.gov)

According to published statistics from my child’s intended university, just over 11% of applicants were accepted in its previous class. I mention this statistic as a nod to my kid’s hard work and success, but also as vindication of the fact that the typical way is not the only way to get into an eliteschool.

My kid never took an AP course or exam… but he did start attending Community College courses as a high school freshman.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a school district that offers a Dual Enrollment program to its students, your children might earn actual college credits for less than the fee required to take an AP exam that only claims to approximate college level learning for the high school audience.

Why settle for the simulation?

My own selective private college did not grant any credit for students arriving even with the highest AP exam result of five out of five. All I got for that expensive test fee ($96 in 2021) was the ability to replace mandatory Freshman English Composition class with the Literature course of my choice. Total savings: $0. A department placement test could have granted the same privilege for nothing but an hour of my time.

AP classes and exams, like the SAT, are products offered exclusively through the “nonprofit” organization, the College Board.

This Wikipedia article gets at some of what bothers me about the College Board.

I’m all for high standards, but I think that an annual gauntlet of standardized tests actually lowers the level of meaningful engagement for most while offering any given student no educational advantage. Does anyone believe kids today find the standard curriculum particularly relevant or intellectually stimulating? Test takers themselves get nothing for the hours they spend sitting these exams.

I also think a test all but required for university admission should be much less expensiveto everyone, without submitting embarrassing financial aid forms–than the SAT is. Not everyone can spare $55 plus all the extra potential fees one could accrue, but we’re all aware that wealthy families typically pay hundreds if not thousands more for “optional” tutoring, multiple test-taking attempts to increase scores via brute force attack, or to flat-out fraudulently pay a ringer to replace their less able children at the desk on exam day.

No, if a test is going to be mandatory for college admission, it should be offered, at minimum, at every public high school for free, perhaps in place of one of the other annual exams our taxes already pay for.

Beyond the College Board’s offensive effect on students’ schedules and pocketbooks, I’d argue that the directors of an education nonprofit reaching its fingers into the pockets of every college-bound student in the country should earn far less exorbitant compensation. The CEO earns well over $1 million annually. There’s no genius required to squeeze money out of a captive audience desperate for the elevating power of a prestigious degree.A red leatherette University degree folio stacked with a black High School diploma case

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m a huge fan of the move toward test-optional admissions that the pandemic accelerated. My child did choose to submit scores because one of his safety schools requires them specifically for home educated applicants. His efforts earned solid, if not spectacular, results. That was “good enough” because home education for high school allowed for the accumulation of more than thirty actual college credits along the way.

What better evidence that one is well-suited to college level work than a 3.96 GPA… at college?

I’d like to see even more options available rather than definitive “test blind” policies dictating against even considering any test results.

Given my druthers, I would let students select for themselves how to put their best individual feet forward. I appreciate startups like the CLT (Classic Learning Test) seeking to disrupt the status quo though I liked them a lot more when the CLT10 alternative to the PSAT was free for all takers. It now costs $44, and the SAT-equivalent CLT $54, while being of interest to far fewer institutions than the SAT or ACT.

As a rule, I abhor most of what the College Board stands for today as a barrier between those who yearn for an education and college admission. Historically, when the SAT was closer to an IQ test than a Common Core final exam, its limited usefulness was more obvious for students whose schools didn’t offer advanced coursework. I’m happy that we engaged so little with that organization, with an October sitting of the SAT our sole act of acquiescence to their extortionist monopoly.

Perhaps it would be better if individual institutions returned to more unique applications and processes, testing would-be students for themselves on exactly what matters to their program. The Common Application (and its cousin the Coalition Application) may have removed the drudgery of filling in repetitive information across multiple similar forms, but the ease of shotgunning applications has also led to ridiculous bloat in the average number of schools considered by each student.

The average cost to apply to each college in America was $44 apiece in 2020 (arithmetic mean, most likely), but elite schools more often charge around $75, and some institutions expect more than $100 per applicant just for the chance to be rejected! Here’s looking at you, U.C. San Diego & (bafflingly) Arkansas Baptist College.

Kids are applying to more universities because they are afraid they won’t get in to any of the places they’d really like to attend. A return to specialized applications could ease this inanity.

I tend to be somewhat contrarian, if that’s not obvious, and I made that fact clear to my child as decisions were made during his home education journey. “Typical school enrollees do this,” I would point out, “and here’s how I feel about that, but this other position might make you more competitive.”

My opinions did seem to influence my kid, but the application process was his own. We did not supervise or monitor his application. We didn’t even see it§ until he was finished. At that point, he asked both parents to be proofreaders a day or so before the submission deadline.

That’s the way it should be when a child reaches the cusp of adulthood. That was the underlying foundation of every lesson I sought to teach my child via home education. If he had an idea for a way to reach the goals we’d set, it was his right to try that way unless it proved ineffective or inconvenient.

Modern institutional schools are a mere blip in human history, and learning is available to all of us, from far more corners than educational power brokers would lead the masses to believe. Strict policies and procedures tend to be convenient for bureaucrats, not conducive to individual excellence.

My hat is off to my dear child who did the work, made his choices, lived with their consequences, and seems to be reaping the just rewards of all that effort.

If you’re a potential homeschooler or home educating parent reading this while mulling your own options, I encourage you to follow your instincts and do what feels right for your child or yourself if you are the student. That may look “normal,” or it may give the relatives pause. Where the result is a young person gaining skills and internalizing the value of education for its own sake, damn the optics.

My child is one more data point showing there’s more than one way to get admitted to an excellent college in 2021. Your kid could be the next.

Best wishes to the class of ’22, and may all of your dreams–college or otherwise–come true.

*Early Decision, as the name implies, is an application process whereby a student submits materials early to one and only one college, creating a binding agreement to matriculate to the chosen institution if accepted. “Early” means applying by November whereas the usual deadline is January. In exchange, the student knows by mid-December instead of in the spring if s/he’s been accepted.

Early Action is a similar, but non-binding process, for those who’d like earlier decisions without committing to attend a certain school. Often this is to allow for comparing merit-based financial aid packages, which can make or break a deal for middle class kids.

I’ll use the term “elite” because this university ranks within the top 50 domestic schools according to US News & World Reports. For my child’s privacy, I prefer not to make public his choice of institution.

Dual Enrollment, sometimes called Concurrent Enrollment, usually refers to a program wherein high school students take college courses and earn simultaneous credit toward a secondary school diploma and future university studies. Wikipedia offers a more detailed description, but these programs vary widely in availability and cost between states or even by local community. For example, our district offered full tuition for one course during a single year of of my child’s high school period. Because the state program funding Dual Enrollment was directed toward communities in need, and our city’s demographics improved at the community level, he was only eligible for free tuition in 9th grade. Since then, we paid out of pocket for higher education classes, mostly at our affordable local community college.These costs were significantly lower than private high school tuition would have been.

§As a home schooling parent, it was my responsibility to prepare a letter in place of the usual college admissions counselor recommendation, but I logged on to the application through a separate portal unique to educators. I could only see what the student applicant would normally show a counselor.

Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones

What if student loan forgiveness were tied to public college costs?

Some American politicians want to forgive all student loan debt. I disagree with this notion, mostly because I think many private colleges are now charging a ridiculous, inflated price, not supported by evidence of their inherent value to the individual or to society.

I am all in for learning. I want more kids to earn the benefit of a meaningful education that supports their personal and career goals. I believe that our entire society would benefit if we did a better job teaching our children, from cradle to adulthood.

I agree that our current system is dysfunctional. My opinion is that reforms should aim to correct something more fundamental than the particular loans taken by students who have already left the system. The pricing structure for a university education should be made more rational, not cloaked in additional government intervention.

I don’t want my government paying current “list prices” for private colleges for every student—already a narrow group, disproportionately representing our richest, most privileged children—and especially so when younger, more vulnerable pupils fail to learn in crumbling buildings with more attention paid to test scores than human potential in our mediocre K-12 system.school supplies - 1

That being said, I am also on the side of those who argue that our system is inherently unfair and biased against the scores of bright, motivated students often representing the first generation of their families to reach higher education. The financial aid system is byzantine; true costs of attendance are cloaked by “merit aid” and government contributions based on “need” can’t be assessed without filling out reams of paperwork.

The less experience one’s family has with American higher education as a system, the harder it is to understand any of it at a glance, or even with a great deal of study! Actual costs are opaque. It’s hard to even justify paying a $75 fee to apply to a university whose website says it charges $75,000 per year when your parents earn $7.25* per hour.

That those are real figures which just happen to look like an elegant visual numerical alliteration is the best thing that happened to me today.40 hours per week times federal minimum wage equals $290 gross take home paySure, fee waivers are available, but how many times does a poor student deserve to be reminded of his deprivation within a single application process? And high school seniors apply to around seven colleges each. math written out 7 times 75 dollars equals $525

Imagine being the 17 year old high school senior, living in poverty, who has to say:

“Hey, Mom, can I have two full weeks’ of your take home pay to buy the privilege of applying for the chance of spending more than five times your annual earnings every year for the next four years to get educated? Yup, that’s right, Mom. The webpage says the price for a college degree is 20 times what you earn per annum.”

Of course financial aid is available to those who qualify; the vast majority (86%) of American students receive some financial assistance towards paying for college. To qualify for aid requires one to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.) That process takes about an hour… if you have ready access to recent financial records and tax returns plus social security numbers for both yourself and your parents.

Aside from the insanity of the FAFSA using a different definition of “dependent child” from the same U.S. government’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there is also literally no recourse for a student under age 21 whose parents won’t provide their financial records for the purpose of filling out the form.

Per the Filling Out the FAFSA® Form › Reporting Parent Information page:

“…if your parents don’t support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won’t be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen.”

Until you are age 24—if you’re unlucky enough to have unsupportive parents—unless you can prove via written records that they are in jail, that you had “an abusive family environment” (remember: proof required!), you can’t find your folks at all, or you are over 21 and also “either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless,” it’s hard to know whether completing the FAFSA will even be worth the effort.

The travail of merely filling out the FAFSA, appears to prevent kids from under-served communities from even approaching applications to higher education.

Oh yeah, and the federal government audits a disproportionate number of financial aid applications submitted by young adults from neighborhoods where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color.

COVID-19 has increased the size of all of these hurdles, apparently. Rates of application to community colleges, for financial aid, etc., have all plummeted in 2020-21 for precisely those students who would benefit most by furthering their educations—those born under a burden of poverty, placed there by circumstance, but forced to carry it on each young back until the lucky ones access the tools required for self-liberation. Education is the most common lever used to pry that burden off.

Go ahead and add that loss to the half a million lives cut short, and tack the cost onto the pandemic’s final bill.

Pile of moneyIt is an indisputable fact that the United States has systematically de-funded public colleges and universities within the span of my lifetime, rendering even “public” universities difficult to access for all but the wealthiest students. To me, that represents an utter failure of public higher education, a human service that is so important to our nation’s civic character and economic growth that I would consider it part of our basic infrastructure.

By definition, I believe public education should be attainable** by 100% of the citizenry.

A recent Boston Globe article detailed a tug of war between the Biden administration which proposes $10,000 per student in loan forgiveness vs. a progressive position championed by Elizabeth Warren and others to forgive $50,000 per student.

Here’s my response: why not tie governmental student loan forgiveness amounts to public college tuition and fees? Whether this is a federal average, rates for institutions in the region where s/he got her education, or the price where s/he lives now, at least this figure would remain tied to some actual, real cost of higher education as it changes over time.

Yet that public tuition rate should also reflect an efficient system, one hopes, seeking to offer a good return on the state’s investment in its future taxpayers. Without the option for limitless borrowing to go elsewhere, the discretionary facilities arms race of ever grander stadiums and shinier, newer dorms to entice potential first years should slow, if not stop altogether.

Typical colleges would have an incentive to keep their published tuition rates aligned to what borrowers could reasonably find the means to pay. Elite universities might maintain higher prices, but their rich endowments would continue to make generous aid packages possible for anyone they chose to admit.

View of community college building on campusGovernment regulations tied to hard figures always end up skewed by inflation; income and prices change year by year, typically trending upwards. The Alternative Minimum Tax, for example, was designed to apply to very high income earners who were taking “too many” legitimate deductions, but now it routinely catches upper middle class, dual income families in expensive coastal cities in an indiscriminate dragnet while much richer folks pay money managers to hide and protect larger assets.

I’m imagining a scenario where a billionaire politician could pay only $750 in federal taxes while those of us earning far less pay many thousands more…

It strikes me as fundamentally fair and equitable for students electing to attend private colleges to remain entitled to their share of government help, but not necessarily more help than those who opt for public institutions. This would act as a brake on runaway tuition hikes overall while never preventing any private entity from charging whatever it wishes. That seems like common sense, and protective of the public interest.

Another idea that can only be addressed at the federal level would be to offer international skilled worker visas preferentially to companies that implement effective training programs for American workers simultaneously. Those same corporations could sponsor scholarships for domestic students—or create in house programs for local unemployed or underemployed citizens—on a some-to-one or even one-to-one basis for future hires. No reasonable person should expect businesses to hire employees incapable of filling the requirements of a particular role, but our government could ask that those allowed to important talent also take part in reducing that same need going forward.

The U.S. Government should remain involved in higher education. Without an educated populace, the chance that America remains a global superpower rapidly dwindles to near zero. Power—and the money that goes with it—flows to those who control the currency of the day. In 2021, information and technology reign supreme in that arena. The field depends upon a trained workforce to function, though, and there aren’t enough Americans with the requisite skills to fill open positions in U.S. technology firms today. I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that those odds are improving, either.

The pandemic’s winnowing of the best and brightest poor students in the United States from the ladder of upward mobility via advanced degrees will damage our ability as a nation to compete in the global marketplace, and never mind the real, tragic human cost to those young souls. The ideal role central government can play in education is to ensure equitable access to it for the broadest possible swathe of the populace. Financial Aid is a means to that end, but the American version is a tool that requires sharpening to be used to better effect.

In the meantime, if you are trying to figure out how much college costs right now, be aware that American colleges and universities are required to offer a “net price calculator” somewhere on their websites. Search for it directly from your web browser as some institutions bury this useful tool deep under their admissions information. Also consider Googling the “common data set” for any university you are considering; this standardized form is where U.S. News & World Reports and all those other comparison sites get their college facts. Section H2 will give you a lot of information about how many students receive both need-based and merit aid at the school you are considering.

I’m fundamentally academic by nature. I left the workforce to devote many of my prime earning years toward the education of my own children. I believe in the transformative power of learning to change peoples’ lives for the better.

Finding an “average price” for college is not straightforward because of the obfuscation about which I’m complaining! Here’s an entire article going into detail about how “net price” differs from official tuition figures, and also separating out the living expenses which paid for by the same source: typically, financial aid. From that US News & World Report article, I got an average price for public colleges of $9,687 compared with $35,087 at private ones. That said, we must recognize that Harvard College’s 2020-21 undergraduate tuition may be $49,653 with fees of $4,315, while its actual, billed “cost of attendance” is $72,357. Tuition itself is almost irrelevant in this discussion, because that latter amount is what “financial aid” would cover.

Harvard hides its tuition information, by the way, not even providing a direct link on its admission page. I had to search for “tuition,” and, not coincidentally, that was the top search term on their FAQ page. Instead of making its price easy to find, Harvard inundates the admission seeking high school student with multiple pages extolling their rich and abundant financial aid offerings. That’s all well and good because such a large proportion of the student body receives aid, but it precisely underscores my point that the system as it stands is wildly complex at the expense of the well being of the student population.

* US Federal minimum wage as of 2020 is $7.25 per hour

** I specifically mean attainable financially here. I do not believe that 100% of the human population should attend traditional colleges and universities, and I think the push in that direction does a disservice to those with inclinations outside of the classroom. If it were up to me, we would have a national network of trade schools administered much like the community colleges, and with identical access to easy, straightforward financial aid for those who need it.

I would argue that it remains imperative for colleges and universities to maintain academic entrance standards. Some students will be excluded because not everyone develops the intellectual capacity for the most abstract forms of thinking, but I’ve never seen credible evidence that this kind of aptitude is distributed inequitably amongst various ethnic, racial, or social groups. Rather, most studies on this issue point to the distractions of poverty and oppression as levers operating against the success of some. I wholeheartedly support reforms that provide every schoolchild with the same opportunity to reach his or her highest potential, but I don’t believe that every one of us was cut out to be a physicist, say, or a fine artist, nor would I hold those individuals up as fundamentally superior to the plumbers and mechanics who keep the systems we rely upon working smoothly.