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.

Best internet error message ever: close this page and re-launch it from whence you came

In recent weeks, I helped one of my children apply to a competitive program at a local school.

Having gotten distracted from the open application page while it was in progress, I returned to my desk to what is now my favorite internet error message ever yet received. How often do we enjoy those, really?

And here it is, lest you appreciate it as much I do:

Your session has been lost error message, including advice to "re-launch it from whence you came"

Close this page and re-launch it from whence you came,” they advise.

Close this page and re-launch it from whence you came

Yes, that’ll do, pig.* That’ll do.

I try to hold back some of the force of my tidal waves of opinion from my dear children, attempting to allow them the latitude to be whomever they wish, and offering them the reins of their own educations whenever I can get them to take them. Boy oh boy, however, am I tickled pink by this turn of phrase.

I wouldn’t quite urge my kid to enroll in a program he wasn’t keen on because of it, but… Let’s just say I’m sorely tempted.

The pickiest grammarians amongst us will now argue about the redundancy of “from whence;” the preposition is actually implied by the whence itself, of course. I count myself amongst those who hold, though, that, if Shakespeare used it, it can’t be too offensive to the English language as a tool of self-expression. Continue reading

Exposé: Stock manipulation in progress (beef, not GameStop)

Maybe you read my previous post about how I freeze leftovers, or maybe you didn’t.

Obviously, I think you probably should read every word that I’ve written, but I can hardly be called an impartial judge.

Wire corner shelving with 4 Crock Pot slow cookers of different typesRegardless, I made a nice pot of beef broth in my Crock-Pot the other day.

After leaving it to simmer overnight, I put it out on my snowy kitchen balcony to cool, finally freezing it into useful, recipe-ready pucks using my silicone muffin pan.Frozen broth popping out of flexed silicone muffin tray

Would you believe that a stinkbug made its way into my fridge on the cooling glass mixing bowl full of stock? It was drawn by the heat, no doubt. Thankfully, I’d covered the bowl with Saran Wrap, creating a wisp of perma-garbage, but also keeping the insect on the exterior. Insect bits are almost never Kosher, by the by.

Winter weather in recent days has left me a bit less than dexterous. My arthritis definitely waxes and wanes with something, whether that’s barometric pressure or my star chart. At any rate, I fumbled a little as I used my customary tongs to prize the icy soup circles out of their silicone enclosure.

Touching that chilly stuff is gross—because there’s a dead animal in there!—and also bitterly cold and painful for already aching finger joints. The tongs are useful, but approaching a necessary evil when wielded by hands I’d call ham-fisted if I hadn’t renounced pork decades ago.

I store my home-made chicken and beef stock in a plastic tub in the top, right corner of my freezer. Within that container, I subdivide the two types in a few labeled Ziploc bags that I rinse periodically and re-use for that same purpose.Hand holding stainless steel tongs placing frozen puck of broth into baggie labeled Beef Stock

Slipping the last few pucks into their baggie, I was struck by this thought:

“My gosh, I’m participating in a stock manipulation!

I think that’s probably all I need to say about that, short of admitting I wish I’d had a copy of my kids’ Game Informer magazine (a GameStop publication) to shove position artfully in the background of my photo for this piece.


Seeking only perfect role models means failing to learn from history

Like many others—including the city’s mayor—I find the choice by the San Francisco Board of Education to spend its time focused on name changes for 1/3 of its public schools in the midst of a pandemic quite shocking. It strikes me as a misuse of resources when the children the Board is commissioned to serve are struggling to learn remotely with no* firm re-opening plans in place.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10Contrary to the far right, white supremacist commentators who unilaterally dismiss that Board of Education’s actions as essentially foolish, I’d like to make clear that I support discussion of social justice issues in this context. The feelings of enrolled students about the namesake of their institution deserve to be recognized, though, crucially in my opinion, not catered to by default, and never without extensive study and careful reflection when a preponderance of reasonable people hold differing opinions.

Talking about thorny questions is helpful, even vital to each pupil’s education. Confronting difficult episodes in our shared history enables us to be better as a nation and to become better individual human beings. I disagree with some of the ultimate decisions made by the San Francisco Board of Education about striking particular names from schools, but it’s not because I am unaware of mistakes made by leaders in earlier eras.

By my reckoning, the great hubristic error shown by that Board is the futile quest to pretend any perfect role model exists, unblemished enough to “deserve” to have a school named for him or her.back side of Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

No man or woman can be held up as a paragon of all virtues for all times. All of us fail; the very best of us will lead a life full of foibles. Some of us succeed handsomely in our own time, but later run afoul of changing notions of decency in another era.

The greater the risks taken in life, the more likely we are to make at least one real doozy of an error. People who devote lives to public service will fail with an audience, by definition. Should we teach our children to avoid any action to circumvent the possibility of failure? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to be more afraid of being judged by history than they are of taking part in—and becoming leaders of—public life?

Speaking for myself: no, I would not choose to teach that lesson to my kids or anyone else’s. I think the San Francisco Board of Education is doing a grave disservice to the children it serves by wielding nuanced history as a blunt instrument. Ironically, time is unlikely to be kind to its members. If they are remembered at all, it may well be for presumption and self-righteousness.

There is evidence that children allowed to fail, shown how to learn from their mistakes, then given opportunities to try again to find success grow into healthier, more productive adults. Given the 100% probability that a human being will screw up, a focus on incremental improvement seems like the wisest approach to raising and teaching young ones.

Christen your institutions with improper nouns defining high ideals if you still demand perfection: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, perhaps? Freedom? Justice? Unity? My personal favorite is Integrity.

Statue of LibertyIrreproachable individuals don’t exist, San Francisco Board of Education, but I’m curious to see who you believe holds up better to scrutiny than yesterday’s heroes with their feet of clay.

The social justice warriors on San Francisco’s Board of Education might not like being compared to fascists, but, to me, the parallels are obvious. People in power are attempting to strong-arm the world into abiding by their own narrow standards, ignoring complex reality in favor of pat party lines and simplifications that cast “the other” as willfully evil. Without a doubt, extremist elements on the left are also prone to seeking economic and social regimentation with forcible suppression of opposition.

Our young people didn’t invent cancel culture. Students of history will recognize the eradication of the names of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Hatshepsut as a similar insult to non-conformists. The term damnatio memoriae may be modern**, but the concept is not.

Let’s teach our children to honor what’s good in our history while recognizing errors for what they were: human failings. Then, we learn what we can from those past mistakes, incorporating their lessons into our own pursuit of a better future. Isn’t that the ultimate point of public education?

* As of January 29, 2021, as I write these words, only one school’s re-opening plan has reached the Site Assesment stage and zero (0) applications to re-open have been accepted.

Presenting a role model as too perfect actually prevents teens from seeing a path to similar success for him- or herself. According to the linked study, kids benefit more from learning about Thomas Edison who worked very hard to achieve success (in spite of his reputation as a real jerk) vs. Albert Einstein whom most regard as a born genius with preternatural intellectual abilities.

On a television show I watched recently, the teens attended a school called Excellence. That’s a fine paradigm for which to aim.

Too bad one of the hyper-pressured teen characters felt compelled to abuse drugs to keep up and cope with the stress, and an otherwise ethical teacher on the show guides a young child toward cheating on high stakes exams to chase the academy’s pursuit of excellence in its reputation over the needs of that pupil.

** 17th century

Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

Continue reading