Brand matters when arthritic hands administer COVID tests

Until this weekend, I had only personally administered two brands of COVID-19 home tests on myself or my children. All of my earlier home testing experience was with:

I wrote a detailed review of the Cue Health product a few months ago for those who can afford a more accurate, but much more expensive home test.iPhone running Cue App next to Reader device with COVID-19 test plugged in

Both the Abbott and Cue coronavirus tests were easy for me to use, had straightforward directions, and required only moderate hand strength and dexterity. I highly recommend either of these brands to those with less-than-average manual abilities.

I say this as a person living with a diagnosis of mild, seronegative rheumatoid arthritis whose small joints do not always cooperate with my intent. Those with profound disabilities may require assistance for even these tests, and near-normal eyesight is necessary for every COVID-19 test I’ve tried.

That said, if you can still brush your own teeth effectively, you can probably manage either Abbott or Cue home COVID-19 tests.Open COVID-19 test box with post it note reminder to test twice, 72 hours apart

In our busy household of five, we keep all of our coronavirus test kits on a dedicated table at the side of the living room, stacked up in order of expiration date.

Having flown cross country in March to visit my father, I consumed several tests in quick succession upon my return, and we quickly worked through our locally purchased Abbott test kits to the more recent Roche branded ones we received free from the United States government.COVIDtests.gov offers free at home COVID-19 tests to Americans

Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order 2 sets of 4 free at-⁠home tests. Click here to order yours if you haven’t already.

We test my younger child—the one who attends high school in person—every weekend before he goes downstairs to visit his paternal grandfather. Дедушка lives downstairs in our home, but he has his own dedicated space, kitchen, and a separate entrance. Still, age and health status leaves Deda especially vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19.

We feel grateful to have the means to protect him from an infection we might unwittingly visit upon him by going about our own public lives.

On Saturday, we used one Roche COVID-19 At-Home test kit from a box of four. Fortunately, it was conducted by my hale and hearty teen, administering his own test. I did not anticipate how difficult this test would have been for me, had I been taking one myself, and I was happy to be merely an observer and reader of directions.Roche COVID-19 test instructions, box, cartridge

Steps five and six of the Roche process would have stymied me, but my healthy child had no real issue with them or with the test in general. There’s a lot of firm pinching involved in those steps, which would be beyond my arthritic fingers.

Our older home educated teen took a test later the same day, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind trying the fourth brand in our personal arsenal: the ACON Labs FlowFlex test even though this meant using test out of expiry order.

I was curious if it would present similar issues. It did.

FlowFlex was the brand sent out by our health insurance via its preferred mail order pharmacy, Express-Scripts.8 FlowFlex COVID-19 antigen tests

We are entitled to eight “freei.e., included with our employer-provided health insurance COVID-19 tests every month for each covered member of our plan. I ordered those for the two household members going to work/school as soon as the benefit was published on the website, and they were delivered about four weeks later. In the meantime, I’d ordered a batch of tests each for the other covered members of our household.

If I order directly from the preferred prescription provider, I don’t have to wait for reimbursement. Paying nothing out of pocket seemed like the best option. Now I know better.

For our household, in the future, if I’m the one who requires testing, I should go to a local pharmacy and purchase Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests instead of accepting the option available via mail-order without any out-of pocket expense. This will be a smarter choice given my manual limitations.COVID test tube in stand awaiting insertion of swab and drop-dispensing cap

I believe it is highly probable that Abbott’s BinaxNOW, Roche’s COVID-19 At-Home test kit, and ACON’s FlowFlex have similar probabilities of correctly detecting the novel coronavirus responsible for the chaos and societal disruption of 2020-2022. That said, I doubt the ability of the latter to work for me, with my limited hand strength.

Both the Roche and the ACON FlowFlex test require a user to firmly pinch the included vial between one’s fingers for an extended period of time to get an accurate result. I doubt I could do this reliably, repeatedly, for accurate test results.Fingers squeezing plastic test tube for COVID test

I did experiment with my teen’s FlowFlex vial post-test to determine that I’m capable of dispensing the mixed drops with that product without too much discomfort, but dispensing four drops into the test cartridge is less effortful for some of us with weak phalanges than holding tight to the tube while spinning the test swab therein.Hands squeezing to dispense drop of liquid for COVID test onto cartridgeI felt compelled to compose and post this particular piece as quickly as possible to share my experience with the world. Had I only tried that first test brand, that I happened upon at my local pharmacy last fall, I would have no idea how tricky other versions of COVID-19 tests might be for those of us with more limited mobility.

It is worth reporting that, if I did not have such limitations to my dexterity, I would prefer the more compact packaging offered by Roche and ACON Labs over Abbott’s fairly bulky box, especially for travel. The Roche multi-pack uses far less packaging for four tests than two boxes containing two each of the BinaxNOW. Roche/FlowFlex’s volume will be decidedly less if packed in a suitcase.

Aside from the need to firmly grasp a plastic tube for steps five and six (Roche)/step 2 (ACON’s FlowFlex), I would not have such a distinct preference for Abbott’s BinaxNOW over the competitors. That being said, my limitations have settled in as a near constant over the past decade, and I no longer expect my own normal to return to a more median average.

From my perspective, if you require an at-home COVID-19 diagnostic test, and you have limitations to your manual dexterity, you should try to get an Abbott BinaxNOW antigen test or a molecular one from Cue Health.

If your hands are crippled by arthritis, and you must use Roche or ACON Lab’s tests, ask a fully able bodied friend for assistance, if possible.


Disclosure: The author of this post owns 51.044 shares of ABBOTT LABORATORIES (ABT) stock at the time of writing. Abbott Labs makes the BinaxNOW test kit product.

I find written directions easy to follow and actually enjoy the step-by-step process of assembling LEGO toys and IKEA furniture kits, so my experience may not reflect that of average people.

Please donate blood soon if you’re able

The American Red Cross has issued an urgent plea: our hospitals are facing a severe blood shortage. Blood donors are desperately needed, not just today, but on an ongoing basis over the coming weeks.

“Right now, the supply of the sorely needed type O blood would last only a half-day.”

It takes time to process donated blood, the result is perishable, and the need never subsides. We have no artificial substitute for life-saving donated blood.

Per the Red Cross website, you can donate blood as often as every 56 days if you meet these criteria:

  • You must be in good health and feeling well
  • You must be at least 16 years old in most states
  • You must weigh at least 110 lbs

You can donate blood after any of the COVID-19 vaccinations currently approved in the United States, usually without delay. Expect to report exactly which vaccine you were given—Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson—and the date of your shot.

According to the Boston Globe:

“…[N]ormally the Red Cross nationwide has a five-day supply of all types of blood — meaning that if blood collections suddenly stopped altogether, there would be enough to last five days.

Right now, the supply of the sorely needed type O blood would last only a half-day.”American Red Cross logo

If you are healthy and able, please consider donating blood in the near future. Less than 38% of Americans are eligible to donate, and only about 3% of that group does so.

A single blood donation can save as many as three lives. It’s hard to imagine a more valuable use of one hour of one’s time.

Homebound senior wants COVID vaccine yet can’t get shot doctor prescribed

Here’s the story of one elderly American citizen who agreed to be vaccinated against COVID-19, yet hasn’t been able to receive a shot as of mid-June, 2021.

Someone I care about has a very complex medical situation. Her health is fragile, and her immune system is compromised.

My loved one is frail and almost completely housebound; it is a struggle even to get her to scheduled doctors’ appointments with ample notice. Sometimes, her body simply won’t conform to the constraints of sitting in a passenger vehicle. Hospital bed in dining room

She certainly would not be able to wait 30 minutes on a hard chair in a physician’s practice—let alone standing in an aisle at a local pharmacy—the way my kids and I did after our jabs. At the same time, due to a history of severe allergic reactions to drugs and vaccine components, the risk of an adverse reaction is higher than average for this patient.

Consultations with her various specialists resulted in a consensus that the Pfizer product is the only recommended COVID-19 vaccine for her.

Thus far, none of her providers has been able to offer access to a prescribed dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a routine visit. Internet-savvy family members continue searching for a solution that will accommodate her specific needs with no luck to date.

The patient’s state of residence now offers at-home vaccinations for those who are homebound. Unfortunately, the program sends its providers out with the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine only. According to the toll-free hotline, there are no exceptions unless the patient is under 17 years old.

This patient, though unable leave home for a shot, cannot take advantage of her state’s offering for housebound residents. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately 6% of U.S. seniors were completely or mostly homebound as of 2015.

Without a doubt, American wealth and power has provided a tremendous benefit to average citizens who’ve been amongst the earliest to access life-saving vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Public health, however, relies upon the breadth of its network to protect every resident. Many of our most vulnerable are still waiting as vaccines near expiration dates in medical center freezers.

Evidence of widespread vaccine hesitancy proves we must keep working to remove barriers to access for those willing, yet unable, to be vaccinated in currently available settings. Lives—and our loved ones—depend upon it.

Countertop mini dishwasher offers quick fix for dead appliance in pandemic-mode home

It is only with tongue firmly in cheek and a deep respect for the fact that I have enjoyed a relatively safe, comfortable, and very happy life that I state—cue swell of melodramatic music—the worst possible thing has happened:

My dishwasher died, mid-pandemic!

Red NO symbol crossing out broken stainless steel appliance

My dishwasher died, mid-pandemic!

This feels like a catastrophe because we run that appliance roughly four times most days with everyone working and/or learning remotely from home.

The Bosch dishwasher we got with this house no longer powers on following a few weeks of intermittent-but-increasing button-press failure. Our non-expert analysis of what was under the hood kick-plate didn’t reveal any obvious reset to try on our own. We have ordered a replacement.kickplate removed from stainless steel dishwasher showing hardwiring and soldered copper pipe instead of flexible tubing

For those who don’t already know me well, now is when I confess to being a thoroughly disinterested cook. The one time I directed a full kitchen remodel where my preferences reined over popular opinion, I bought almost literally the cheapest electric coil top! stove from Sears whilst splurging on a high end, German-made Miele dishwasher.

My priorities may not be common, but I’m quite clear on what they are.

The dishwasher is the most used appliance in our home excepting the stalwart, always-on refrigerator. It follows only central heating, running water, and refrigeration in my estimation of the crowning virtues of everyday technology.

Pandemic shortages & risks still affect appliance purchase, delivery & installation

Fortunately, more than half of our household of six is at least partially vaccinated, lessening the risk to us of having a plumber in to install a new machine. Risks to essential workers dealing with the public day in and day out remain much higher than those of their customers.

Since our atypical home includes a kitchen one story above ground level, we will also require delivery well inside the threshold. I imagine dishwasher delivery generally requires more than one single person. The model I chose weighs 107 lbs (48.5 kg.) That’s two more contacts outside our bubble.

Accomplishing this dishwasher replacement will mark the first time any tradesperson—let alone three outsiders—has entered our home since before the first shutdown began.

All of these health-preserving convolutions must also be viewed within the broader context of commerce in 2021. Plumbers were hard to book before COVID; getting one to show up now is beyond difficult.

Supply chains all over the world have been disrupted by the scourge of coronavirus infections. The Miele that I elected to replace my defunct Bosch SHU66C may have benefited in production from its maker’s domestic parts manufacturing, but getting the finished product from Germany to New England remains fraught with delays as of May 2021. The one I wanted due to arrive a few days after I contacted my favorite local appliance store is now back-ordered.

I’m not sure when I will get the new machine I’ve purchased, let alone how soon I can book professional installation by a qualified plumber.

I sought a short-term solution to maintaining household peace—and sanitation!—in the interim. A portable, countertop dishwasher is what I found.Aikoper countertop appliance on kitchen counter

Typical portable dishwasher requires standard faucets to accept adapter

I opted for an Aikoper Compact Portable Dishwasher with 6L Built-in Water Tank & Water Hose Inlet (Model KOP-DW2605A) ordered from Amazon.

Countertop dishwasher manual and warranty card

There were a few “portable” dishwashers available locally, but all were variations on the design I know well from my first apartment: full- or almost-full-size models that roll up to the sink and connect with a special “quick connect” adapter that screws onto a standard faucet. These adapters replace an aerator (i.e., a little mesh screen that twists off easily) and are widely available in hardware stores and online.

The issue with any of those models is that we installed a modern “pull out sprayer” faucet when we moved here.

Pull out spray heads are great for everyday use. I like the option for one fewer hard-to-clean protrusion from the countertop, eliminating the off-to-the-side sprayer I grew up with

Or, as we did in this home, integrating the spray function into the faucet itself frees up that existing counter cut out for installation of a plumbed in, multi-stage water filter. I find the tap water in our community distinctly unpalatable without filtration beyond a carbon block pitcher.

Either way, I didn’t want to change my self-selected faucet to accommodate short-term daily use of the countertop dishwasher.

My purchase of the Aikoper Compact Portable was also influenced by the fact that we have historically hosted at least one very large Thanksgiving banquet each year. I see this little machine as a way to more quickly zip through the multi-day process of cleaning multitudes of party dishes at holidays in the future.

For both cases, I would have to ditch the faucet design I prefer to accommodate use of most portable dishwashers. There’s no way I’m going to swap out my faucet in either scenario.

Tank based, compact dishwasher alternatives exist & solve common issues

On Amazon, I found a different portable dishwasher design.

Tank-based dishwashers like these seem to universally? include the option to connect via the adapter I’ve already described, yet they also incorporate a holding tank for the fresh, clean water that will be used to wash the dishes. A user can fill that tank via a pitcher or my preferred pull-out faucet, pouring water into the vented, screened hole on top after removing the loose-fitting white debris cap.

Once filled, tank-based machines complete their wash cycles without blocking access* to the kitchen sink throughout the run.

The included plastic pitcher and wide, flat funnel aren’t strictly necessary to manually fill the machine, but the funnel (marketed as the “pouring water assistant”) is particularly nice to have. Filling pitcher included with appliance, 1.8 L capacity

Since the pitcher is marked to have a 1.8 L capacity, you might expect that filling it just over three times and emptying into your dishwasher tank might be sufficient to prepare the appliance rated as having 6 L capacity. It seemed to require at least five pitchers-full the first time I ran the machine to test its functionality.

Filling with a pull out faucet sprayer is much more convenient, especially for those of us who lack hand strength and become exhausted easily lifting full pitchers of water. I found it annoying to fill the appliance via a pitcher.Filling funnel included with appliance

With the dishwasher sitting on a kitchen counter, it is a little bit high for me to reach over and fill, so I can’t see exactly where I’m aiming the water. The funnel helps channel every drop right into the receptacle where it belongs.Water flowing from pull out spray head into dishwasher filling hold

A 61 inch long water supply hose was included in the Aikoper box. The water supply hose has a right angle connection on one end which should help with keeping installation very close to a back wall. Remember that you will need a faucet adapter not included to install with this option.

If installing with the water supply hose option, your water pressure must be between 0.04 MPa and 1 MPa, per the Aikoper manual.

Because the water supply inlet and drain pipe outlet are set into an indented area at the back, bottom edge of the dishwasher and the supply hose has a right angle connection, the included hose should not require any additional clearance behind the appliance.

A side benefit of pre-filling the dishwasher with water, then letting it run without any connection to the household water supply, is that it eliminates that chilly scenario when a family member starts a built in model while someone else is showering.

In 2021, no one should live with plumbing that routinely scalds or runs cold, but that kind of annoyance remains common in many older homes.

Draining the used, dirty wastewater is also necessary. Tank-based dishwasher models like my Aikoper Compact Portable allow one to route the drainage hose into an adjacent sink or a large bucket.

The drain hose pictured was included in the Aikoper box. It’s about five feet long.

Because the water supply inlet and drain pipe outlet are set into an indented area at the back, bottom edge of the dishwasher but the drain hose has a straight connection, about one inch of additional clearance may be required behind the appliance if you’re trying to get it as close to a wall as possible. I have found replacement hoses with a right angle connection on Amazon, but I haven’t purchased one to confirm this gap could be eliminated.Ruler and cardboard showing gap between back of appliance and bent drain hose as if pushed back against a wall

A small suction cup on the hose is supposed to keep its end inside your grey water bucket, but mine does not stay fixed to even the smoothest plastic waste container I’ve tried. Happily, the exiting water does not seem to flow with enough force to cause the hose fly around spraying filth, as was my initial fear.

Obviously, if you drain your dishwasher into a bucket, remember that you’ll need to lift the receptacle for emptying. With the machine’s approximately two gallon (6 L) capacity, expect a weight of about 15 lbs (6.8 kg) of grey water to dispose of after running each load of dishes.

Those of us with arthritis or other physical limitations will benefit from emptying the waste bucket midway through a wash cycle. Doing so reduces the effort required vs. lifting a full bucket. I’m careful to keep a second, smaller dish handy to put the wastewater hose into while I do this, however, lest the machine discharge additional grey water at an inconvenient moment and flood my kitchen with filth!

dirty grey water in Rubbermaid Commercial square containerMost people probably have a sturdy office sized trash can, five gallon bucket, or other suitable container for catching wastewater in the quantity required. If looking to purchase a new, highly suitable receptacle, I’d suggest a Rubbermaid Commercial Crystal-Clear Square Storage Container in the 8 quart size which will accommodate more than 7.5 L, large enough to prevent splash-over messes.

The 6 qt size pictured above in the same product line is sufficient to the task, but only just, and mine ended up perilously full when I used it without taking care to empty mid-cycle. You could make this container work for the task if you have one on hand, but I wouldn’t recommend its purchase for this particular job.

A bucket with a handle or handles will be easier to lift and empty.rubber cap stuck on appliance with strapping tape

A small, black rubber cap stoppered the drain port on the back of this dishwasher. In order to avoid losing this small piece, I used the tape that had been employed for security during its shipment to adhere the cap to the back side of my appliance. It will be useful to avoid inconvenient drips when moving the Aikoper immediately after use. Small amounts of water are likely to remain inside the machine for hours or days after the last cycle.

Dishwashers save water vs. hand washing

This seems like the right time to point out an easily overlooked fact: full size, modern (post-1994) dishwashers clean an entire load with about 5 gallons of water. Hand washing a sink full of dishes consumes more than five times as much—up to 27 gallons of fresh, potable water—while not offering any improvement in results.

The mini sized Aikoper Compact Portable uses just 1.6 gallons (6 L) per load though, to be fair, an overflowing double sink full of dirty dishes might take two cycles to get through.compact dishwasher settings shown: Normal, Hygiene 162 F, Fruit

Typically, dish-washing machines increase water temperatures to a sanitizing 140-150 °F, well above suggested water heater settings designed to protect children from scalding while saving energy.

The U.S. EPA recommends setting hot water heaters to 120 °F.

My new Aikoper Compact Portable dishwasher uses 162 °F for its hottest cycle, well above the temperatures at my tap. In 2021, even a little appliance such as this one includes an internal heating element to optimize wash and rinse temperatures and improve hygiene.

Growing up in the American West, I was taught to wash dishes using two basins for soapy and clear water; we never let the faucet run throughout the task! My family appears unable or unwilling to internalize these habits, so my search for a backup dishwasher has an altruistic motive as well as supporting my hatred for manual household chores.

Energy use—according to the Energy Guide yellow card standard with all American appliances for almost as long as I can remember—compares as favorably as one would expect between my broken-down Bosch and my new portable.

The U.S. Government suggests the Aikoper Compact Portable will consume 150 kWh/year of electricity.

Keep in mind that compact and full size dishwashers are not directly comparable using this system. Also, due to the years that passed between issuance of the Bosch label and today’s Aikoper label, average electricity rates grew from 8.28¢/kWh to 13¢/kWh whereas natural gas averages went from 65.6¢/therm to $1.05/therm in the same period.

My broken, full size Bosch was expected to consume 430 kWh/year vs. 150 kWh/year for the much smaller Aikoper. By comparison, the new, full size Miele I’ve ordered is rated at 230 kWh/year according to the manufacturer’s website.

Aikoper Compact Portable: Do dishes come out clean?

More than any other fact or feature about the Aikoper Compact Portable Dishwasher, what most want to know first is, “Will my dishes come out clean?”

I always had to scrub or re-wash the spoons before. That doesn’t seem to be necessary with the new dishwasher.”

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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.