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

Hot water bottles to warm up 2020’s chilly COVID socializing & studies

It’s 2020, autumn, and the pandemic did not miraculously resolve after the election. For those of us who believe in science and value the health of others, the only safe way to socialize these days is to take our meetings outdoors.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1I suffer more from the cold since developing an autoimmune disease, but November in New England isn’t traditionally known for sedentary al fresco activities. Even hale and hearty young people become uncomfortable sitting still as the mercury drops much below room* temperature.

Snow sprinkled evergreen trees in autumnAnd, of course, we got weather like this in October!

The first step to staying comfortable outdoors is wearing appropriate clothing. It is always wise to bring at least one layer more than one thinks is necessary for extended jaunts on cool days. Wear a cap, and bring your gloves, too, of course. But if the sun sets, or the temperature drops below 60º F or so, the amount of clothing required—or the need for expensive, highly specialized gear in which you may not wish to invest—can become burdensome.

teal softshell rain

Why I use hot water bottles at home and outdoors

I send my child to outdoor classes—and welcome visitors to our yard for socially distanced visits—with a cheap, simple, classic, soothingly warm hot water bottle. Adding a source of radiating heat beneath a blanket or tucked into a jacket can add hours of comfort for anyone, and, as a bonus, it also helps ease pain for those of us with arthritis.

Unlike a heating pad, you aren’t tied to an electrical outlet with a hot water bottle. And, while I also use microwaveable “warm bags” —which I’ve heard friends call “rice sacks,” “heat pillows,” and also “heating pads”— the grain filled type weigh just as much, yet cool down relatively quickly compared with the long sustained warmth of water with its very high specific heat capacity.

Red rubber hot water bottle on bed

My history with hot water bottles

Before I married my husband, I’d never even seen a hot water bottle in real life. I knew what they were from old novels and cartoons, but hadn’t noticed they were still sold in stores.

Quaint and old-fashioned hot water bottles may be, but I’ve become a convert. I’ve found them readily available in major chains and tiny Main Street Mom & Pop drug stores across America. Ask the pharmacist—or the oldest person on staff—at your local shop, and you will probably get what you need.

Continue reading

4 tips to help kids wear masks safely at school

I’m a volunteer safety monitor during lunch and free time a.k.a. recess at a school serving grades 1 – 8. Aside from keeping the usual eye on the kids, during COVID-19, this job also emphasizes maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings properly.

With a few weeks of the school year under my belt, here are my top tips for parents who hope to help their kids keep their masks in place while they play.

Disposable surgical maskMy top four playground observations regarding children and masks:

  1. Fit matters
  2. Fabric matters
  3. Washing matters for re-usable fabric masks
  4. Instruct kids on how to sneeze before they need to know

Continue reading

Outdoor school, in person amidst COVID-19, looks like this

Nervous families want to know if sending kids back to “in person” school during a pandemic is safe, and if it is worth the risk. Here’s what I’ve seen at my child’s school in September 2020.

I write this post first acknowledging my position as a parent with every conceivable advantage. Having been on site every day since two days after Labor Day, I can share what the autumn of COVID-19 looks like at one small New England institution serving elementary and middle grade students.

Red autumn plant by fence - 1

Decision 2020: Remote or in person education

My younger child, who prefers learning in a group, was given the option by his school to attend in person or remotely. Our community has low COVID-19 infections rates that makes this a reasonable choice. Even better, “in person” classes would be conducted outdoors until the weather turns cold when autumn segues into winter.

In accordance with advice from the department of health, DS2‘s school is requiring* the kids to:

  1. maintain social distance at all times and
  2. to wear masks any time they aren’t seated at their assigned desks for working or eating.

Lectern with laptop and whiteboard propped on mobile tool cart outsideMy child requested a return to in person school, and we agreed that he may go until they move indoors with the caveat that any surge in local virus outbreaks or lax enforcement of health protocols at school could change our position.

Even with low COVID-19 infection rates, I would not send my asthmatic son to school indoors at this point in time. We also have two elderly adults in our household, both with significant underlying medical conditions on the CDC’s watch list, so I’m on higher alert than I would be if I had only our nuclear family to consider.

Because I am a full time parent, I volunteered to help the teachers keep an eye on the children during lunch- and free-time. Recess inherently lacks the strict visual supervision of class time. My selfish reason for doing this is to make sure my kid isn’t more exposed in reality than official policy might suggest.

Setting self-concern aside, however, I also proposed myself for this new volunteer position because I knew that our teachers would have all of their usual work to do in addition to enforcing a slew of new rules that combine novelty with literal life and death consequences. Showing up and lending a hand seemed the very least I could do. My time is my own to spend and three other adults would remain present at my house to support my teen with his online work.

When I walk the playground for an hour and a half, the teachers have an opportunity to take a real break and eat lunch in peace. The kids still benefit from having a grown up—me!— available to remind them to replace their masks after they eat, and my extra set of eyes helps even the most active among them to maintain social distancing no matter how vigorously they are defending a fort, swinging on the tire swing, or digging a giant pit.

COVID-19 School Lesson 1: Create defined spaces minding social distance for everything fascinating

Here’s my first take-away advice for other adults, teachers and parents: kids who are engrossed in something are going to forget to mind their social distance. The younger the kid, the quicker this occurs. If awesome projects are happening, do everything you can to set up “stations of awesomeness” that are fixed to locations six feet apart!

An example at our school? The science teacher brought in several live frogs for a lesson. Afterwards, multiple kids wanted to hold the tiny creatures as the teacher cleared away equipment to her car. While each child did a great job waiting his or her turn, they were drawn closer as if by magnets whilst waiting. They started out sitting at opposite corners of a large blanket where they’d been assigned for the lesson, but nothing prevented the forward creep of excitement that all parents know from their own young kids. Blanket spread on lawn with pumpkin, pencils, etc.

Separate frog habitats on individual, smaller towels with “waiting spots” assigned on other, distanced towels (one per kid) would have worked better than the larger blanket which was fine for a teacher-directed lesson with direct supervision. Visual distancing cues are good; physical barriers are better; using both together is best!

None of us wants to prevent kids from the deep concentration of fascination with their work, but we adults must step up to keep them safe while they are in a state of flow. “Six feet” is a pretty vague concept to any elementary school student; it’s utterly meaningless to one who’s distracted!

COVID-19 School Lesson 2: Kids need masks that fit well, especially once they are in motion

Another tip I’d offer parents is to watch your child play in the yard or at a park for a solid hour or so with a new mask on. It becomes very obvious on the playground when someone’s mask is ill-fitting.

Disposable surgical maskWatching the children organically form into a whooping, running mass as they re-accustomed themselves to being together was one of the most heart-lifting things I’ve seen since the pandemic began. These kids are thrilled to be in each other’s company again, and the joy of play was plain on every covered face. I felt terrible each time I had to interrupt a game to remind a kid that his mask was slipping.

The same kid would struggle to follow the rules on one day but not the next for what appeared to be a non-behavioral reason: one mask fit that kid’s face better than the other.

Some of the little kids show up wearing masks that are too large and therefore floppy. Three older kids on different days tried using neck gaiters as face coverings, but each was constantly adjusting his tube of cloth as those simply don’t stay up once a child is in motion. Gaiters are not a good option for school face covering.

5 styles of cloth face mask next to surgical maskTry to get your kid to jog around the block in a new mask before sending her with it to “in person” school. A kid with a mask that doesn’t fit well—or feel comfortable—is being set up for discipline and failure. There are many mask styles available now, so keep looking until you find one your child can tolerate.

A certain young child behaved beautifully every day but one; when I asked him what was going on with his mask that day, he admitted that it smelled funny. Mom and Dad, if you’re thinking of trying a new laundry detergent, consider doing the experiment on a Friday night and having the kids try on their masks well before school begins on Monday morning.

Another thing I wish every worried parent knew is how well the youngest kids are adapting to wearing a mask all day, every day. It already seems natural to most of them! From what I’ve seen, the littlest children acclimated quickly to what was just one more “first” in their short lives.

Our middle-group kids seem to be the most resistant to the need to wear masks. It’s tough growing into your “question authority” phase during a pandemic, plus these kids are better used to school and life without face coverings. I appreciate that our school is taking a hard line about the necessity of protecting others by taking precautions, but I feel for the rebellious ones.

Schools, make sure your pupils know when and where they are allowed to step aside for a mask break without breaking the rules. Some kids need to exercise this kind of autonomy more than others, or more often. Give them a way to do it safely when you can.

COVID-19 School Lesson 3: Educators who worked hard are now working HARDER

Though some people bemoan “lazy” teachers who took the job to get summers off, I think those are mostly people who’ve never managed groups of kids!

Professional educators tend to be people who sincerely want to help children achieve their potential. COVID-19 has foisted a lot of extra work onto teachers, none of it within the normal scope of training for the job. Oh, yes, and getting it wrong runs the risk of making children sick. I have to believe it is the rare educator who enjoys hurting children.

I am spending only about a quarter of the school day being vigilant on behalf of the pupils on our playground, and I am exhuasted by the time I get home from this duty. Sure, I live with chronic illness, so I’m hardly a model of vigor and vim, but keeping watch takes a lot out of anyone who cares about her charges.

Desk with plexiglass barrier - 1

Our school’s leader is a handy type. He was able to add plexiglass partitions to the kids’ work tables himself. This woodworking task was done during his “summer vacation.”

Don’t worry: the plexi extends above the wooden supports by another two times their length, but that’s hard to see on a small screen. The barrier extends well above the kids’ faces.

School tents for COVID-19 - 1On a fine September morning, tents nestled alongside a red-painted barn appear positively idyllic. School started with each child finding his desk ready for him, each with a personal bin for books and papers. The same fellow had to source and procure these new materials after doing the planning to figure out what was needed and how to pay for it.

Another bit of summer, consumed by COVID-19…

Upon arrival at school, kids help carry furniture and bins out of the barn to prepare for the new day.

But within the first week, a light rain highlighted a weakness of a certain style of canopy. Attempts to reach the manufacturer for parts proved that equipment bought from retail stores by small businesses—our school, in this case—often can’t be repaired economically.

A painful lesson for a tiny school without endowments or rich benefactors. Also, many extra hours of work outside the school day for a full time teacher.

Dismantled tent frame and fabric next to remaining erect EZ-Up style canopyOf course, there is more to weather than rain. When the breeze picked up, kids realized that outdoor classrooms require heavier jackets much earlier in the season.

And, it turns out, large sheets of plexiglass have their own issues with the wind!

Plexiglass vs. wind nature weather - 1

All of these little headaches have to be multiplied by the teachers’ love for their students and commitment to their well-being. They care if they get this right, and they want to keep the children safe.

At our school, most of the adults have years of experience doing the same jobs… in the same classrooms with their supplies just so. Though the school hasn’t moved, the transition to working outside the doors requires constant adjustments. That kind of effort consumes energy as well as time.

I suspect every member of the staff at our school feels like s/he is working a brand new job in a whole new environment while teaching. That is stressful, and that’s in addition to the requirement that these caring educators remember to remind kids as young as six years old to keep their distance and keep their masks on.

There’s no specific tip for this observation except to remind parents to be kinder than ever to their children’s teachers. Recognize that none of us has a monopoly on pandemic-induced stress. You and I may not have the same worst stressors during these crazy times, but odds are we both face some.

Two weeks into the new school year, I asked my son two questions this morning.

Are you able to learn in your socially distanced, outdoor classroom while wearing a mask?

Yes, he said. He’s learning just as well as always.

Then I asked him about socializing and play. Even with his mom on the playground annoying his peers, even with reminders and occasional rebukes about space and facial coverings, I asked him, is he having fun with his friends?

Yes, my son replied. He’s really happy to be back at school amongst other kids, even with the necessary restrictions.

For us, for now, in person education for this child is a risk worth taking.

Our employed household members continue to earn their usual paychecks, and both have the option to work from home. My home educated teen is attending all of the usual courses that we elect to outsource online. We have enough rooms for all this work to be conducted with relative privacy, and we had the means to upgrade our internet infrastructure over the summer to eliminate technical roadblocks we experienced in the spring.

I am counting my blessings, and they are myriad!

*Another change is the requirement to pack out all lunch detritus instead of disposing of potentially contaminated trash at school, and the kids no longer have access to a kitchenette for reheating their meals. My interest in waste free lunches and re-usable containers is serving us well. Hot food in insulated thermal jars is already receiving a warm welcome, and it is only mild September!