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.

Trampoline exercise to ease chronic pain & stiffness

A mini trampoline probably won’t solve your chronic pain issues. My JumpSport 550fi rebounder* has not cured my autoimmune disease, nor did I expect it to. What it has done is offer me is an opportunity to rise up from my seat and move in a way that doesn’t aggravate my sensitive joints.Hardback library book on JumpSport fitness trampoline to show relative size

JumpSport 550fi specs

I ordered my fitness trampoline from Costco.com and received it in mid-July, 2020. I believe the JumpSport 550fi model sold by Costco is simply the manufacturer’s 550f model with the optional Handlebar accessory included.

Here are the specs if you’re interested in the same rebounder I have:JumpSport 550f/fi specs including price, size, weight

My JumpSport 550fi came with two workout DVDs and a one year subscription for additional streaming content. The former was at an intensity too high for someone with my health issues, and I never attempted to access the latter. Watching the instructor led exercises on the disc was helpful for getting ideas about how I might adapt moves to my own level, however.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m “bouncing my way to fitness,” but I am getting up off my backside and moving vigorously more often than I did without the trampoline. When even common, everyday tasks present you with physical challenges, this feels like a big win!

Recent studies suggest that even very sedentary people gain massive improvements in health and longevity from fairly small amounts of exercise. My personal goal is to always—every day, no matter how bad I feel—get my blood pumping on purpose for at least ten minutes. During pandemic lockdown, my fitness trampoline has become a key component in achieving that.

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LunchBots stainless containers for life, even lids lost 10 years later

It can be hard to splurge on expensive items designed to last a lifetime when cheap, semi-disposable alternatives abound in our stores. Their ubiquity makes them seem like the obvious choice.

For parents preparing to pack daily lunches for school, stainless steel and glass containers are a perfect example. I can buy a week’s worth of plastic sandwich boxes for the price of a single stainless steel one.

Screen grab shows $17 for stainless sandwich box vs $8 for 3 plastic ones

Kids lose things. Kids break stuff. Kids aren’t necessarily careful with something just because Mom paid more for it.

And, after all, they are just children! While I want mine to grow up to be careful stewards of their possessions, I’d also like for them to be able to enjoy a meal without fretting about my reaction if the fancy new lunchbox gets dented or scratched.

In spite of such obstacles, the LunchBots brand proved to me this week that I was wise to invest a bit more cash in their products vs. the cheaper plastic competition in 2010. They stand behind their products, even 10 years after purchase!

LunchBots is one of a few companies I’ve personally patronized that opened for business c. 2008. That’s when plastic-as-poison was gaining mainstream steam, leading suburban moms like me to look for non-toxic alternatives to plastic food containers laced with BPA and other endocrine disrupting* compounds that may or may not leach at dangerous levels into what we eat and drink from them.

In 2020, LunchBots replaced a ten year old lid that my child lost. They didn’t charge me a cent, not even the actual cost of mailing it!

Replacement LunchBots Pico lid next to well worn 10 year old version Continue reading

College cheats: getting in is nothing; learning is everything

The most obvious truth revealed by the recent college admissions cheating scandal that has ensnared Hollywood celebrities and other rich fools nationwide is that typical Americans have completely lost sight of the purpose or value of education.

Paying bribes to be admitted to university is frankly moronic for most of us. All of the real value of the college experience comes as a direct result of studying—and learningtherein.

Graduation cap and degree captioned University of DeceitRich kids will continue to stumble into lucrative careers because they have the right connections. Average kids, and the less well prepared, will take on massive debt for less and less substantive rewards when we devalue our universities by sending kids with no direction or purpose simply to fill seats.

Naturally, those who steal and cheat to get into college go on to cheat while attending college. I wouldn’t want to work with or hire that kid!

Businesses already decry the lack of qualified applicants for job vacancies though the percentage of Americans attending college has been increasing for decades. Being admitted to college confers zero qualifications. Learning—at a university or anywhere else—actually builds skills.

So, too, does honoring oneself and one’s community by behaving with honesty and dignity.

True scholarship also enhances one’s life in less quantifiable ways. The cheaters are too cowardly to risk realizing this fact for themselves.

Pile of moneyEarning a college degree has held, thus far, as a predictor of higher pay, but for how long? When students are enrolled only because “college is the next step after high school” vs. following an interest in deeper, more focused study of something specific, the automatic pay bump for a bachelor’s degree will disappear.

We ought not mold our colleges and universities into the image of our less and less functional compulsory K-12 system. Academia is not the right fit for everyone. All students are not the same. Disparate careers benefit from differing methods of preparation for new workers. Human beings have different learning styles.

Jobs go to people who can do the tasks required. College, in and of itself, teaches no specific skill save mastering the “admissions game.” That’s defined as test taking and/or bribery and fraud, apparently.

Children should be encouraged to do their best academically, but honor their unique selves by accepting both their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t let them fall victim to the patently false modern myth that admission to “the right college” is a golden ticket to happiness, prosperity, or success.

Consider trade schools, sampling classes at a local community college, internships, or self-directed online study if there is no perfect path to a four year degree right after high school.

Life is so rarely perfect! Why would one person’s education be?

One of the most compelling stories by an alumna of the small women’s liberal arts college I personally attended came from someone who went on to attain an MBA from an elite American business school. This woman was committed to attending that particular institution for her advanced degree, but had to apply three times before she was finally accepted. They were eventually persuaded by her passion and dedication.

Her message to us: persevere when you know what you want. This particular woman of color had reached her own definition of personal success by working hard and refusing to take no for an answer. She was a CFO at a startup at that time.

Education is not a zero sum game, though seats at a particular university may be. Focus on attaining the skills required by a career suited to your personality and strengths, and do realize that “where you went to college” becomes irrelevant very quickly after graduation for the vast majority of people.

“Steal,” yes, because cheaters have taken, through fraud, a slot at an institution where another scholar might benefit and contribute honestly to the campus experience for the entire community.

Considering antidepressant medication? Try vitamin B-12 first.

This isn’t medical advice. I’m not qualified* to offer that.

Vitamin bottle B12 - 1I am simply a self-educated consumer who lives with a chronic health condition. I’ve drawn my own conclusions from research done as an intelligent lay person, tempering it with common sense. I invite you to do the same.

Many of us diagnosed with autoimmune conditions, degenerative neurological diseases, and chronic pain will be prescribed antidepressants. There are fine reasons for this.

Some chronic pain responds positively to antidepressant medications. Given in lower doses than those prescribed for psychological reasons, side effects are often less as well.

Here’s a link to a (long, almost 2 hrs!) YouTube presentation by Dr. Dan Clauw, M.D. that offers a great explanation for the current understanding of why these drugs may help certain types of pain.

Depression is also a normal human response to learning you can expect to spend the rest of your life with constant pain or in a rapidly degenerating physical condition.

That is a depressing situation for any rational person to contemplate. Treating mental health problems is important, and I do not sit in judgement of anyone who takes pharmacological steps toward better self care.

If you are a danger to yourself, please seek immediate, aggressive care. Do whatever it takes to get well. Your life matters.

That said, I’ve recently learned that the major physical symptoms of depression mirror almost exactly those of a vitamin B-12 deficiency. Hmm…

Even patients with valid diagnoses of other conditions—here’s a study about multiple sclerosis, for example—often have other stuff going on in the body that can make symptoms worse. Large numbers of hospitalized, depressed patients have measurable Vitamin B-12 deficiencies.

It isn’t known yet whether B vitamin deficiencies help create conditions that allow us to develop disease, result from lifestyle responses to living with chronic illness, or are direct side effects/symptoms of disease processes.

I’d argue that the underlying mechanism doesn’t matter so much when we’re talking about supplementing with vitamin B-12.

Why? There is no known upper tolerable limit for safety for supplemental B-12. Say that in plain English? No one ever “overdosed” on this vitamin.

Here’s a link to a more reputable (than me) resource, a state university, for detailed mainstream medical information on the subject of Vitamin B-12. And another to a US government fact sheet on the vitamin for American consumers.

B-12 is water soluble. If you take too much to be used by your body, it will leave your system naturally via your urine. You might “waste” the vitamins you’ve bought and paid for, but odds are tiny** that they will hurt you in any appreciable way.

If someone is ready to prescribe antidepressants to a patient, that patient must have at least one medical doctor who could also be consulted about taking vitamin supplements. Ask your doctor before starting a new treatment, including Vitamin B-12, but, odds are, you will be told this is safe to try.

You may also hear that vitamin B-12 won’t help you. But, then again, antidepressants aren’t a guarantee either. They include a long list of side effects, some of which are very unpleasant. Those prescription pills can also be expensive.

Also, it’s just as unscientific to assume the vitamins won’t help you as to assume that they will.

I’ve come to realize that no one cares as much about my health outcomes as I myself do. With good insurance and caring doctors, I’m still left with unanswered questions and a merely tentative diagnosis for what causes my chronic pain and fatigue. Where stakes are low and scientific certainty is lacking, I choose to perform nutritional experiments upon myself.

If it is highly unlikely to hurt you, and it could help you, why not take some extra vitamins for a while and see if you feel better, too?

Assuming your doctor said such a trial is safe, the only possible barrier is cost.

I picked up a bottle of store brand vitamin B-12 at wholesale giant Costco with 300 pills for $19. Each offered thousands of percent (20,833%) of the RDA***, making a bottle good for the better part of a year taking one per day.

That works out to $23.12 annually. Costco typically offers very good value.

At an expensive local vitamin specialty retailer, a three month supply (of 16,667% RDA pills) cost $16, coming out to about $64 per year. I suspect it would be hard to spend much more than this for these vitamins.

vitamin-bottle-b12-2.jpgThere are several forms of B-12 available, and both of these offerings are for the most expensive type, Methylcobalamin.

Some users have reported that the most common, cheaper form, Cyanocobalamin, doesn’t resolve their symptoms, but the Methylcobalamin form does. At less than $20 per bottle, it seems within financial reach of most Americans to do this self experiment with the potentially most effective version of the supplement.

My two sample bottles also both contain dissolving lozenges to be held under the tongue rather than swallowed and processed through the digestive system. Again, some argue that a sublingual or injected B-12 is more effective than a swallowed dose. I went out of my way to test this type of supplement, just in case, though science tends to think it is irrelevant for most.

In all of this, note that my primary interest is in clinical results, i.e., how I feel. It will be great if research comes to understand why and how B-12 or any other supplement improves patient outcomes. But I am not a working scientist.

The bottom line for how I make a decision about self-treatment comes down to whether or not I feel better, and at what risk.

The “clinically small” improvement of a group of MS study participants quoted above may be of only slight statistical significance, but when your function or your sense of well being has descended to, say, 25% of your old normal, well, then, 27% or 30% represents a win.

I don’t know what you should do to help yourself live a healthier life. I do have some opinions about which alternative health practices represent good risks worth a try for a person in pain. Perhaps this little experiment can ease some of yours, too.

Your body; your choices. Make them in good health.

*My education in both Biology and Chemistry ended in high school as my college science classes were limited to Physics courses. My major was Mathematical & Physical Sciences with a concentration in Computer Science.

Make no mistake that the side effects can be significant, however. They are also likely to affect your offspring, not just yourself. There are studies showing this in very obvious and less direct ways.

Powerful drugs are appropriate to treat significant illness, but I’d argue that they should be employed after milder alternatives have been tried and found insufficient.

Other sources, regarding. depression.and .neurological and psychiatric disorders

**There are some instances of allergic reactions to vitamin B-12, but I only read of such response to injections (shots), not over the counter vitamin pills. Reports of acne or skin rash in response to large dose vitamin pills do occur with some regularity.

You decide whether temporary skin issues are something that would stop you trying a larger dose of this vitamin for yourself.

***In most cases, we do NOT know the “optimal” level of vitamin intake. Vitamin B-12 reference ranges vary from 180-914 ng/L in the USA, 135-650 pmol/L (183-881 pg/mL) in Australia, and 500 – 1300 pg/mL. (ng/L=pg/mL, so no conversion necessary there.)

If you think this is an important thing for people to know, write to your government representatives and tell them you support basic nutrition research. Private companies have very little motivation to pay for this kind of work; there’s no resulting drug patent to fund the endeavor.

There’s a reason some public services, like infrastructure and basic research, are paid for by taxation. Otherwise, they simply aren’t available to all of us.