SOS: Save our spices! Organize kitchen seasonings in uniform glass

Is it ironic that I am going to begin a post about how I came to organize my kitchen spice shelf with pointers to a product that I did not use for this purpose?

Canning jars—domestic Ball jars or European Weck jars—are one excellent way to store seasonings. I use them all the time for grains, freeze dried food decanted from large #10 cans, and leftovers, but they weren’t the best option for my spices.Food storage in use jars

Before I tell you how I did end up organizing my seasonings, protected from light, yet on an open shelf approximately 35″ x 12″, allow me to share one specific solution others on the internet seem to have missed.

Solution to deli container spice storage: the plastic vs. glass dilemma

Articles like this one from TheKitchn suggest deli containers for space-efficient storage of relatively large quantities of spices for cooking. You can fit any measuring spoon in them, even those big round Tablespoons!close up of spices in Weck canning jar and store packaging

I stumbled upon blog posts where people liked the deli container notion while not wanting to keep sensitive foods in plastic. Plastic, of course, can leach chemicals into foods with unknown health effects, especially in the presence of heat.

Do you ever set your spice jars down next to—or right on top of—the stove?

For those disinclined to worry about chemical exposure from plastics and their effect on human health, I recommend reading Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan, PhD.

Plastic is also prone to static, an annoyance with expensive dry powders like most spices.

If you want to store your spices in “deli containers,” but you prefer the non-reactive nature of glass to the typical deli dish’s plastic, what you want are 1/5 L Weck Mold Jars in style #740 ($17.25 for a set of six, but shipping is extra and glass is both heavy and fragile.)8 oz Lucerne sour cream tub shown next to similar sized Weck 1/5 Mold Jar 740 with a yogurt cup inside of that for comparison

The 1/5 L Mold Jar is about the size of a cream cheese or sour cream tub. It’s just shy of two inches high.

The taller, same diameter 1/4 L Weck Mold jar #741 ($18.50 for a set of six) makes another good choice for really serious cooks. If you store even larger quantities of your most used spices, this one is similar in size to a cottage cheese tub. This size is about 2 ¾″ high.

Six #740 jars with six plastic lids and shipping to my zip code would total $34.35 for a cost of $5.73 each as of April 2021.

My family uses both of these sizes of Mold jars to put away our leftovers. This fridge photo shows the 1/5 L Mold jar full of beans stacking neatly atop a plastic deli tub of applesauce; next to that, a 1/4 L Mold jar holds a partial tomato under its glass lid.View into fridge with leftover beans in Weck 740 jar stacked on similar diameter deli quart of applesauceNote that these are European canning jars, so the included lid will be a round of glass that merely sits in place until sealed via heat processing around its separate rubber ring (not ideal for your dry spices!) For that reason, you will also need to purchase a plastic (size Large, 85¢ each), cork (size Large, $1.20 each), or wood (size Large, $3.50 each) lid for each glass container for which you want an air-resistant* seal.

4 available Weck canning jar lids shown side by side: plastic, cork, wood, and glass

Only the glass and plastic lids are dishwasher safe, but all the glass jars can go in the dishwasher.

It should be noted that even the 3- 7/8″ Large lids sometimes slipped through the top rack grid on my Bosch** machine, and they can warp after too much exposure to the higher heat on the bottom rack. The lid on the far right was warped when it fell to the bottom of my dishwasher.

I love the interchangeable nature of these lids. You can buy Weck jars going all the way up to 2.5 L in size. Americans, that’s a large enough canister for a supermarket bag of sugar. One could store all necessary spices and most other common baking ingredients in attractive, non-reactive, stackable containers where the loss of a single lid doesn’t render any one useless.

If ordering Weck jars for the first time, pay attention that your selections use the same size lid if you share my obsession with owning just a few lids that fit all of your containers.

The Weck “Mold jars” most similar to American plastic deli packaging use lids in size Large, 3 7/8″ ∅. Size chart for Weck large size lid, fitting some Mold, Tulip, Deco, and Cylindrical jars

At this point, I own Small and Large opening Weck jars, using both all the time, but I started out with only narrow ones. I was specifically shopping for juice jars sometime around 2004 when I discovered them at a specialty kitchen retailer.

The manufacturer’s US website eventually gave me a much broader selection of shapes and sizes from which to choose.Weck jars lids narrow neck - 1

Weck jars are made in Germany. Because they are designed for use in canning, they are thick, sturdy glass, resistant to thermal shock, suitable for either a boiling water bath or storing food in a freezer.

Just not directly from boiling to freezing, please, to avoid shattering; it’s still glass!

My kitchen is warm & bright, bad for spices if nice for people

All of this talk about storing spices in wide, shallow deli containers, yet the Mold jars I already owned weren’t a great choice for my own kitchen needs. We enjoy a bright, sunny, southern exposure, but all that light speeds degradation of herbs and spices.

Clear plastic or glass spice jars should ideally be stored in a cupboard away from light—and heat, whether from the sun or the stove—to maximize each ingredient’s useful shelf life.

I don’t have much available cupboard space available on the side of my kitchen that houses the stove, but I do have room for a shallow, folding bookcase about six feet away from the cooker’s heat. It’s ideally located and doesn’t require me to reach too high or low when my joints are flaring or my shoulder has locked up, but it is an open shelf bathed by the light of a sunny wall of glass.hand holding a small white wire basket containing four assorted spice jars and tinsI use a little wire basket to gather what I need, carry it over to the island where I do prep work, and then return the spices en masse when I’m finished with them.

Before I started using the basket, it took too many trips to put everything away. When you live with a chronic condition that includes painful, arthritic toes, saving steps can mean the difference between being able to cook or having to rely upon someone else to do so.

Sensible storage—and thoughtful use of carts or baskets to spare similarly impaired finger joints—is a tool of self-empowerment!

Frugal & fairly good: the 12 × 7 × 5 coffee shipping carton

So my seasonings live on an open shelf about six feet away from my stove top. That location is the best compromise I’ve found between “close enough to grab while cooking” and “hotter spot than it ought to occupy.”

If I simply stacked clear containers there, however, my spices would suffer from direct sun for at least part of the day for most of the year. Two walls of my kitchen are more than 50% glass. I don’t want to degrade my ingredients before their time!

Before this latest organizing project, I solved the exposure to light issue by repurposing a shipping carton.

It turns out that a 12″ × 7″ × 5″ box is the perfect size for 18 standard, commercial seasoning jars. Though different stores carry brands in a variety of bottle shapes and sizes, they tend to fall within a similar range of diameters and heights for use in widely available spice racks and cupboard storage solutions.

Tip: The two boxes I re-used for spices both came from shipments of my favorite mail order coffee beans from Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in California. If you are interested in this free storage option, pay attention to the carton if you order in your caffeinator of choice.

Lake Champlain Chocolates has also shipped something delicious to me in the same size package.Shipping box

If all of my spices had come from the same brand—or if I purchased a set of matching bottles to standardize the lids (more on this notion coming up in the next section!)—this solution might even have been aesthetically pleasing enough for me to keep long term.

A plain box can always be covered in attractive paper, after all, and one can get crafty with some decoupage.

While an environmental win and very economical, the same solution was less effective for my non-standard sized flavorings. These were living in a repurposed paperboard shoe box, a little wider and a little shallower from shelf to open top.

Costco sized bulk shakers of spices in open topped box with various jars and tins including short bottles almost hiddenAside from looking plain in mismatched paper, the opaque boxes made it very difficult to find any of the half-height, mini bottles that are a sensible grocery store choice for seasonings one uses rarely.

Spices only remain fresh for about two years, after all, so if one doesn’t go through a full half ounce of marjoram in that amount of time, the frugal cook should stick to smaller packets.

One issue I have with buying some large and some small spice bottles—never mind the little plastic envelopes!—is that I prefer to keep all of my seasonings in alphabetical order. As an inveterate bookworm since childhood, it’s simply the most intuitive system I have for quickly finding particular items in an array.

Attempting to merge alphabetical order with varied packaging sizes and shapes has led to at least one unnecessary purchase of a spice I didn’t actually lack.

The final problem I personally encountered with my cardboard box storage method was the total weight of one carton full of 18 jars—almost 7 pounds.

It’s hardly an herculean effort to lift it, but it can be a bit much for me because of my autoimmune arthritis. Sometimes, cooking a meal consumes all the physical energy I’ve got for a given afternoon. On a bad day, even sliding out and shifting through 18 bottles in one box was too taxing for my limited strength.Box of spices on kitchen scale showing weight of 6 pounds, 15 ounces

Fully able bodied chefs would probably find 12″ × 7″ × 5″ to be a very manageable size for handling spice jars. It was too heavy for me.

Then again, lightweight and maneuverable can save strain on anyone’s delicate joints, and also prevent repetitive use injuries. Many of us who have adapted to disabilities used to be perfectly healthy, too. Designing thoughtful, sensible storage options while young and fit makes aging in place easier later on.

Considering universal design at every stage of life—even in the bloom of life—is never a wasted effort, though I wish every reader as many years of robust good health as possible.

Standardize bottles for tidy storage, perfectly or close enough

I discovered that Amazon has listings for a brand of glass spice bottles that claims to be exactly the ones used by some of the major national brands: SpiceLuxe.

I had already surveyed the commercial spice jars I owned, recognizing my preference for the larger, squared off shape of Simply Organic brand packaging. Smaller, but with a similarly pleasing form, Whole Pantry and Trader Joe’s bottles tied for second place in my heart.

While not identical, I can happily intermix these two sizes within a bin to keep larger and smaller quantities in alphabetical order.

The larger jar is a 6 fluid ounce container which might hold over 4 dry ounces of seasoning salt; the smaller one is a 4 fluid ounce container which would hold closer to 3 oz of a similar salt.

Online reviewers frequently misunderstand the distinction between fluid ounces measuring volume and ounces as a fraction of pounds as a measurement of weight which Americans use for flour, sugar, etc. I strongly suggest reading the linked TheKitchn article before buying any containers if you don’t understand the difference lest you end up frustrated by what you get.

All of my supermarket glass bottles came with different colored lids, and each has an annoying raised ring embossed into the top of said lid.

I prefer to affix labels to the tops of my bottles to find them easily while protecting the glass from light inside a bin. The bumps on the supermarket lids therefore cause a practical hassle, not merely an aesthetic one.Spice jar tops with raised ring on green Simply Organic lid, silver Whole Pantry lid, and black plastic Trader Joe's lid

Fortunately, the sets of bottles offered on Amazon come with a choice of lids. They are marketed by color, but both the product listing photos and user review images show that most of the offerings have flat-topped lids. Sadly, my first choice for color, metallic green, was the only option that had those darn ridged rings.

To repackage all of my spices, I ordered one set of 12 large spice jars with white lids, two sets of small spice jars with white lids, and one package of 12 extra white lids.

The product listing for these aftermarket lids says, “Fits Glass Spice Bottles by SpiceLuxe ONLY,” but I now believe they are exactly the same as the supermarket brands I mentioned. I had no trouble replacing mismatched green metal, silver metal, or black plastic lids from store brand spice jars to new SpiceLuxe bottles, nor SpiceLuxe lids to most of my supermarket bottles.

Priced at $29.99 for a dozen with free Amazon Prime shipping, that works out to $2.50 per spice jar. The set of 12 lids alone was $9.99.

Alternatively, order direct from the SpiceLuxe site at the same or slightly lower prices, though I did not try this option to offer a review.

Every order of SpiceLuxe bottles includes a flexible funnel, a set of internal “shaker” lids sufficient to add one to every jar, and free labels listing the most common spices.

The funnel may be silicone; it was not separately packaged or labeled inside my shipping box, and, as a “free gift,” there were no details in the product description.

This funnel is useful for filling jars, but I prefer the metal one(s) I already had. There’s less static with a metal funnel than with the included flexible one.

Then again, I didn’t want to mix spices, potentially ruining a whole jar via cross contamination, so having more than one funnel meant I could fill a few bottles at a time between dishwasher runs. I would have been hand washing that funnel many times—then impatiently waiting for it to dry completely to avoid ruining powdery spices before re-use—if I hadn’t gotten the freebie funnel with each set.Funnels designed for filling flasks or oil jars are well sized to refill seasoning bottles

Now that my spice jars have all been replaced, I will probably donate two of the three free, flexible funnels in my next batch of outgrown clothes and housewares sent to a local charity.

Personally, I pry off and toss away the internal sifting lids from all of my spices. Taking them off to stick a measuring spoon inside followed by replacing the inner lid annoys me too much. If I want to sift a spice, I pour a small amount into the jar’s lid then tap the product out to simulate sifting.

Or I use a mini strainer on those rare occasions that I really, truly require a sifted seasoning.sifting powdered sugar into small bowl with handheld stainless sieve

The final freebie—the sheets pre-printed labels with spice names—appears designed to adhere to the front or side of each jar, not to its lid according to SpiceLuxe’s own marketing photos. My only requirement for labeling was an aesthetically pleasing, round, legible one on each cap.

The 1 ¼″ label size might fit within the bounds of the smooth white caps I chose, but they would be too large for the ridged green lid option. You would need a 1″ round label to ensure it works on every possible SpiceLuxe cap or for commercial jars with ridged lids.

I discarded the pre-printed labels which were also repeated in each of the three sets. I didn’t care for the aesthetics of the large, italicized font or their silver color. I also didn’t want to hand write labels for which no pre-printed option was provided, and I prefer the specificity of adding the Latin botanical name to distinguish between, say, common Cassia and true Ceylon Cinnamon.

In order to create my own labels for the lids, I ordered Avery Waterproof 1″ Round Labels (36579) compatible with my laser printer. I used Avery’s web-based label creation software to create and print my labels as well.

Avery Template Presta 94500 worked out perfectly for the tops of both sizes of SpiceLuxe jars.

Self printed Avery waterproof label on SpiceLuxe jar lid

Here’s a PDF copy of my own Avery 94500 size Spice Jar Lid Labels for anyone who would prefer not to work with the template software.

Make sure to print at 100% size if you’re using my PDF or printing labels you design yourself!Clear label with black text reading Better before 2022 applied to glass seasoning bottle

I used my Brother P-Touch Model PT-1400 Label Maker and a black-on-clear TZ Tape cartridge to add best by dates to my new bottles. I didn’t bother to print an exact date for every bottle since spoilage is a lesser concern in this context than gradual degradation of flavor quality.

I batch printed the appropriate quantity of “Better before 202x” tags after sorting and counting the actual seasonings present on my spice shelf.

Bins shade bottles from damaging light

Having bottled my seasonings into a full set of similar containers, I turned to Akro-Mils AkroBins to protect those glass bottles from the sun streaming into my kitchen.

AkroBin 30230 turned out to be the perfect size for my shelf; each 30230 bin will hold two columns of four large or five small SpiceLuxe jars.

Here’s a photo of my finished project:

Wooden bookshelf with 7 AkroBins 30230 holding spice jars and other seasonings

I purchased a set of 12 AkroBin 30230 from Amazon.com in February 2021 for $53.28.

That works out to only $4.44*** per bin. The manufacturer lists multiple retail and wholesale partners on its website if you prefer not to do business with Amazon. Excerpt from Amazon.com invoice for a dozen Akro-Mils 30230 plastic containers sold for $53.28

The lowest price I observed in early June 2021 for any color set of bins from the same source was $61.55 (or $5.13/bin), so it may pay to shop around or wait for a lower price before doing this organizational project.

It must be noted here that the AkroBin 30230 also makes a great organizational solution for an existing array of disparate grocery store spices in their original containers. I really wanted the visual simplicity of a field of similar white lids, but my kitchen would have looked better even if I had only replaced my mismatched paper and cardboard boxes with a set of these bins.

Compare for yourself from these two photos:

Rows and columns of identical—or even just similar—jars are much more appealing to my eye, though the slight variation in heights between the two sizes of SpiceLuxe jar is close enough to please me.

How many SpiceLuxe jars fit in one Akro-bin 30230?

Eight of the larger SpiceLuxe 6 fluid ounce jars will fit in two columns of four rows in an AkroBin 30230.

View from above showing 8 6 fl oz jars in a bin

Up to five rows (10 total spice jars) can occupy the same if at least one bottle per column is the smaller 4 fluid ounce size. The jar at the front end won’t sit completely flush as you can see from the left-most column of the  photo below. One jar will sit slightly raised up where the bin’s interior curves upward.View from above showing ten SpiceLuxe jars in a bin

Three larger jars (6 fl oz) combined with two of the small (4 fl oz) ones is the maximum that fit per column without any wobbling or tipping in this bin. See the right-most column in the photo above.

Once you have created your own set of matching spice bottles, make the switch and refill them by purchasing in bulk or lightweight packets in the future. Shop at a local grocer with bulk bins, or buy online from Thrive Market or Penzey’s.

TL;DR Overview of better spice storage

Spice jars represent one of the few products where many major retailers offer already really excellent, sensible, space-conserving commercial packaging right off the grocer’s shelf. Buying only squared bottles by the same maker could give you a streamlined look in your kitchen with nothing else needed.

If you must buy rare seasonings in mismatched packages—or you already own a hodge-podge like I did—SpiceLuxe brand empty, square-shaped glass jars are available from Amazon. These will let you decant what you have into similar containers with a space-saving form factor.

The same brand, SpiceLuxe, sells sets of lids alone. I had good luck fitting them onto almost every brand’s spice jar that was already in my kitchen.

Use new lids to standardize the tops of your existing grocery store bottles. Simply adding top labels to new lids without disruptive ridges made it easier to find what I need without lifting every spice out of its home in a container on a shelf.

Finally, group your spices into space-efficient, light-blocking plastic bins by Akro-Mils if, like me, you want to protect what’s inside clear glass containers from damaging UV light coming through a nearby window. AkroBin style 30230 will fit from eight to ten spice jars per bin for most grocery store brands.

#10 (number ten) cans are quite large, sealed storage containers that resemble jumbo soup cans… the size of your head! Coffee cans are sometimes this size. Those who’ve worked in food service or gone to summer camp may have seen them in commercial kitchens. I believe that average people should keep at least a few weeks’ worth of shelf stable food on hand to guard against emergencies. When the pandemic hit, I was grateful to have freeze dried fruits, vegetables, and meats, plus dehydrated milk on hand so I didn’t have to visit local stores or vie for scarce delivery slots during the peak shortage of grocery items.

Here’s a screen grab of the shopping cart that gave me those numbersWeck jar shopping cart showing item cost and totals for six jars and lids

* Don’t assume that any of these lids are “air tight” the way a jar processed in a hot water canning bath would be. I can say from experience that the plastic and wood lids seal much more firmly on my Weck jars than the cork ones do. Consider the cork a mere “stopper,” readily lifted away with hardly any force. Since I think cork is meant to “breathe,” I don’t see this as a failing for this type of cover.

** Now defunct, my Bosch SHU66C dishwasher has been replaced by a modern Miele G 7316 SCU model. The Miele’s much narrower spacing between its baskets’ grids of bars has so far kept even small plastic items from reaching the bottom of its stainless steel tub.

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.

Systems should serve people, not the other way around

AC/DC put it succinctly in the title of their song, “Who Made Who?” Later in the song, the lyric “who turned the screw” fits the thesis I’d like to explore pretty well, too.

From the Merriam Webster definition of System

“d : a group of devices or artificial objects or an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose 

Systems surround us, especially the designed networks rapidly replacing naturally occurring phenomena that might once have been the primary driver of human choices. Weather systems can still pack a punch, but a typical modern person on a typical day can live almost completely oblivious to heat, cold, and moderate precipitation.

It is man-made systems that increasingly dictate to the people who use them. The financial system, health care systems, your cellular provider’s system, our highway system: how much of modern life could continue unimpeded without these conveniences?

A question I’ve found myself asking far too often of late is this:

When did the systems humanity designed become master of almost every human action?

Not simply “who made who?”, then, but also “who’s in charge here?”

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