Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should the Government Ban Minors from Buying Violent Video Games?

Next Tuesday, two wonderful expressions of our democratic government will take place.  For millions of us, Tuesday will be the day we vote for our U.S. Congressional Representatives and a host of other state or local officials (the others, I'm sure, have already voted by early ballot).  Meanwhile, in our nation's capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about whether or not the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution extend to video games.

On Tuesday, November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), which deals with a 2005 California law that restricts the sale of certain violent video games to people under 18.  The law was overturned by the California courts for being unconstitutional, but the US Supreme Court agreed to consider the matter when the state of California appealed the decision.

On one side of the issue are various parent groups, who cite studies that linke playing violent video games to actual acts of violence, and argue that we should restrict children's access to such dangerous items just as we refuse to allow them to buy cigarettes or alcohol.  On the other side are civil libertarians and media groups, particularly the game developers themselves, who argue that with their ever-increasing ability for interaction and interconnectivity between players, video games are a growing means of self-expression for tweens and teens, and denying them access to that media runs counter to their constitutional rights, which have been re-affirmed in regards to books.

For our particular family, this matter is not really an issue; we don't own any game consoles, my son doesn't play many video games, and he doesn't enjoy violent games or activities in general, so I can't see him getting into such games whether or not they were banned.  And I can certainly understand the arguments of the proponents of the law.  I highly recommend the book Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria Degaetano, which makes a chilling case that time spent on violent video games (some of which were adapted from military sharpshooter training materials) not only numbs children to violence but gives them the skills to shoot with deadly accuracy, and was a factor in the mass school killings such as Columbine.

However, while I can't speak from personal experience, it also seems that the video games industry is evolving and has created some interesting games that lead players through the consequences of such violence.  The game industry puts forth examples of more-nuanced violent games as "Darfur Is Dying," where the player tries to avoid being killed by militias while in a refugee camp, "BioShock," where the game deals with genetically modified people being used in a bad system that players can choose to either profit from or rebel against, or "Fable 2," where players face the ultimate ethical dilemma--whether they will save only their immediate family from death, or sacrifice their family to save thousands of innocent lives.  Such games, according to game developers, actually allow teens to confront the moral issues surrounding violence and give them better coping skills if faced with violence in their real lives.

So in the end, I have to come down against the proposed law.  I think it would inhibit the free speech that mature middle schoolers and teens should be having about these issues.  And I am always reluctant to restrict civil liberties, which I think are already under seige with the threat of international terrorism.

So if Chief Justice Roberts were to ask my opinion as a parent, I would say the Supreme Court should uphold the lower court decision ruling the law as being unconstitution.  What would you say if he were to ask you?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Triangle NC the Center for Bargain Colleges

The College Board released statistics this week that claimed that while the average cost per year for a four-year  private school undergraduate education is now $36,000 (compared to $21,000 ten years ago), the increase in financial aid actually reduces the average per year cost to $22,000.  Kiplingers followed up that data with their annual listing of the best bargains in private education, based on the average amount of needs-based, and in some cases, non needs-based grants available to reduce the actual costs of attending the school.

The top school on the list for 2010-2011 is Princeton University.  However, the fifth university of their best-value listing was Duke University, located in the Durham point of Research Triangle, NC.  This adds Duke to last year's rating of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the best value among public universities, as well as North Carolina State University's inclusion as number 10.

So even though the college costs around here sound astronomical, it appears that the true costs can be significantly lower.  And we seemed to be blessed with a variety of choices for "bargain" undergraduate education; I didn't any other community that had options under both the public and private lists.

I've included some of the data from the report, including graduation rates and average debt upon graduation, below.  I've also included the statistics from my alma mater, The College of William and Mary, which was #4 on the list....just because it is my old school, several of my friends have children applying there, and it provides some useful comparisons to the local schools.  But if you want to see the data itself, or want to look for other colleges you are considering, you can access the Kiplinger statistics at:

Duke University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/5yrs:  83%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  8
Yearly cost:  $53,157
Average debt at graduation:  $23,059

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  75%, 88%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  14
Yearly cost, in-state:  $15,294
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $33,184
Average debt at graduation:  $14,936

North Carolina State University
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  37%, 70%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  16
Yearly cost, in-state:  $14,390
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $26,875
Average debt at graduation:  $14,996

The College of William and Mary
Graduation Rate, 4yrs/6yrs:  84%, 92%
Student/Faculty Ratio:  11
Yearly cost, in-state:  $20,566
Yearly cost, out-of-state:  $40,358
Average debt at graduation:  $12,859

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is Going to College an Economic Mistake?

Another provocative article in the Washington Post argues that sending children to college is not a good economic investment.  "Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree" by Sarah Kaufman suggests that soaring tuition prices are reducing the economic benefits of a college degree.  According to the statistics in the article, the differential in annual salaries between high school graduates and those with a bachelor's degree has narrowed, as has the difference in unemployment rates, particularly now that college graduate unemployment is at an all-time high.  Also, as the article points out, the average college degree earnings hide huge discrepancies between disciplines; the high wages of business majors or accountants look good compared to high school graduates, but those graduating with degrees in anthropology, social work, or preschool education may not be any higher than the compensation for high school graduates.

Compounding the problem, according to these financial advisers, is the burden of debt many young graduates have from their student loans.  Paying off that debt causes many to postpone major steps in their lives:  buying a house, having a family, opening their own business.  Many can't pay and end up defaulting; this not only ruins their credit (and thus, perhaps, their chance to rent an apartment or arrange a car loan), but may prevent them from getting some jobs (or have the government garnish their wages if they do get the job).

What do these experts say parents should do instead?  Invest that money in their children's future.  The $200,000 (minimum) it costs for four years at a highly-competitive private college would, if invested in T bill with 5% interest over 50 years, grow to nearly $3 million by the children's retirement age.  For those with not-such-deep pockets, at least one adviser says to give your children $10,000 to open their own business.  This, he argues, will teach them more life lessons than any college course, and will make them more motivated in whatever college education they do pursue.

Of course, as the article itself admits, there are non-monetary benefits to attending colleges.  It is for the intrinsic value of the college experience that I would want my son to go, not for the guarantee of a job with a big paycheck.  But it is an interesting perspective to keep in mind.  It is easy to  get caught up in college-mania, worrying about doing the right test-prep to get high enough scores and taking enough AP classes to ensure our children get into that "perfect" school, whatever it is--Harvard?  MIT?  Stanford?  St. John's?  University of Chicago?  Whatever.  If the voice in your head ever says, "But I'll ruin my children's lives if I don't prepare them well enough to get into (substitute educational Nirvana here)," this article provides some good food for thought.

And regardless of what I think about the article, I just have to ask:  Is there really any bachelor's degree program that is worth a quarter of a million dollars?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lawyer Tells Wake County School Board to Stop Texting During Meetings

Last week, the attorney for the Wake County School Board officially advised them to stop texting during board meetings.  Board Attorney Ann Majestic, who researched the issue on the request of the school board chair, Ron Margiotta, recommended against board members texting or sending instant messages or emails during the public meetings.  Majestic's legal reasoning is that the meetings are supposed to give the public an insight into the board's deliberations.  However, if members are sending private messages to each other during the course of the meeting, the public is obviously not getting access to all the board's thinking and communications.

Personally, I am completely behind this opinion, both because I think the sunshine laws require that board communication in public meetings should be available to the public, but also because it is a pet peeve of mine to see public official texting and tweeting and such during official hearings and events.  It drives me crazy to watch public occasions, such as the State of the Union address, and see our national representatives not paying attention to the President because they are too busy typing away on their Blackberries.

But I think it is especially important in this case because it send a message to the students.  When the public or other board members are addressing the body, I think it is rude for other board members to be texting instead of listening.  I believe they should be paying complete attention to the limited amount of time that the public has to express its opinions.  I also believe students should be paying complete attention to the limited time that the teacher has to teach, rather than texting and e-chatting.  In my experience, this is a rising problem in high schools, and teachers differ about how to deal with them.  Certainly, sometimes students are using their cell phones or laptops to access relevant material, and that is to be encouraged.  But the best way to make sure they are doing that, rather than chatting with their friends, is to set a policy that it is not appropriate to be carrying on private or off-topic discussions with friends during class, whether that is by voice, by written note, or by electronic communication.

I think the school board should set a good example for the students by refraining from electronic communications during board meetings, regardless of the legal issues about open meetings and sunshine legislation.  It is one way they can support teachers in the classrooms (even homeschool ones) without spending any money, building any facilities, or reassigning any students.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Much of Your College Tuition and Fees Are Going Towards Athletics?

Earlier this month, USA Today did a fascinating study of the amount of student money that goes to support intercollegiate athletics.  It seems that many colleges are supporting this programs as part of the mandatory fees that students are charged in addition to tuition.  In some cases, however, the athletic fee could amount to over 20% of the tuition.  And in many cases, the athletic fee is hidden under some generic title, such as "Student Activity Fee," so that students and parents have no idea that the money is going to the sports program.

According to the USA Today study, the amount that colleges have been charging for sports has been increasing dramatically; fees had jumped by 18% between 2005 and 2009 alone (adjusting for inflation).  So this is a definite factor in the rapidly-escalating cost of attending college.

The relatively good news for North Carolina students is that this state isn't too bad when compared to many others, according to the USA Today data.  Any guesses as to which branch of the University of North Carolina charged students the most for their athletic program?  Actually, among the UNC branches listed, the highest rate was required at UNC-Asheville:  $620, or 13% of the tuition total.  Next came UNC-Wilmington, with a $541.25 fee (10% of tuition), closely followed by UNC-Greensboro, which bills its students $489 (9.8% of tuition).  Our local universities were much lower.  UNC-Chapel Hill charges only $271, or 4.1% of tuition, but the best bargain could be found at NC State, whose $159 fee represents only 2.4% of tuition (Duke University was not included in the listings).

One focus of the article is how students are not aware that so much of their money is going towards athletics because the fee is not specified.  So I did a quick look at the websites of the UNC colleges listed to see if that was the case.  While not an exhausted search, I could not find any student athletics fee listed by UNC-Chapel Hill or UNC-Asheville (nor at Duke).  However, NC State, UNC-Greensboro, and UNC-Wilmington all had a complete breakdown of all mandatory student fees that had a clear designation of the athletics fee.

Personally, since our family has never been great sports fans, I think that fees over approximately 5% of tuition are out of line with what I think college priorities should be.  However,  I realize others may place a higher value on intercollegiate athletics.  Nonetheless, I believe colleges should upfront information about such fees so that students and families can know where their college dollars are going.  So I commend NC State, UNC-Greensboro, and UNC-Wilmington for their honesty on this subject, and I hope the other state schools will follow their lead.

If you want to see the list of the fees and percentages charged by other colleges in the nation, see the USA Today data at .

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Science Olympiad Openings for Wake and Johnston County NC High Schoolers

It's not too late to become involved with Science Olympiad!  We have room for 10 more homeschooled students from Wake and Johnston counties in grades 9 - 12.  The Raleigh Tournament will be held on Saturday, February 5th at Green Hope High School.  The Science Olympiad is a nationwide competition in science. Students can earn medals competing in many different individual events, and their placement contributes to their team's score. Teams who do well at the Regional Competition continue on to the State Competition (held at NCSU April 29 - 30), and then to the National Competition.

The following events are still open:  Astronomy; Bottle Rocket; Disease Detectives; Dynamic Planet; Ecology; Experimental Design; Microbe Mission; Mission Possible; Mousetrap Vehicle; Mystery Architecture; Optics; Remote Sensing; Sounds of Music; and Write It, Do It.  Please click on this link to find out more about these events (scroll to Division C events):  Students can compete in up to 4 events.

If you would like more information, please contact Teresa LaFond: or 919-460-7365.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Science Education Resource for High Schoolers Coming Soon

I had a really special  opportunity this evening for some advanced information about the new science education wing being built adjoining the North Carolina  Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh (affectionately called "the dinosaur museum" by many local families due to the rooftop glass dome where pterosaurs can be seen circling the fierce Acrocanthosaurus fossil known as the "Terror of the South).  The new section, currently called the Natural Resources Center (although that name may change), is an 80,000 square foot addition that will house labs, interactive exhibits, live presentations, and classes geared towards middle school students and up.    There will be a four-story, round multimedia presentation area called The Daily Planet that will introduce visitors to science research and topical scientific discoveries.

As explained by the museum staff, the existing museum was designed to answer "What Do We Know About Science?"  The new component will answer a different question:  "How Do We Know It?"  The new center will give students a chance to really delve into the meat of scientific inquiry through classes and interactive labs that let them use real lab equipment to collect data, make predictions, and find out results of current scientific investigations.

Another facet of the new building is that it is designed and being constructed with the latest in green technologies.  We were fortunate enough to get to hear from the architect about how the floor plans had been designed to maximize natural lighting (through windows with super-efficient glass, so that they save energy costs as well as let in light), how the rainwater will be collected and recycled to flush toilets and water plants, and how environmentally-friendly building materials are coming from local sources, saving transportation costs of the supplies.

For more information on the facility, or to see the architects' drawings and visualizations, visit their website at:

It looks like it will be a fantastic place for people from all over to visit, but those of us who live in the area will be particularly fortunate to have such a cutting edge learning and research facility easily available to our children

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Facebook Investor Establishes Grants for Entrepreneurs to Establish Businesses Instead of Going to College

Last month, I wrote a post on "Is Going to College an Economic Mistake?" that discussed the rising costs of a college education and the diminishing returns of achieving an undergraduate degree, especially if one has to go into great debt to finish the program.  In that post, at least one financial adviser said that children would be better served if parents gave them $10,000 to start a business instead of paying college tuition, which would give them much more practical knowledge and experience and would, if they went to college, make their time there much more focused and valuable.   The number one question I got from friends who had read that post was, "Well, great, but where am I going to get $10,000?"

Here is one possibility.

Peter Thiel, who is currently a hedge fund manager and venture capitalist, but is most famous for being a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook (he is portrayed in the movie "The Social Network" by CSI's Wallace Langham), has established a new grant program for entrepreneurs.  Called the Thiel Fellowships, Thiel is offering up to $100,000 to 20 individuals or teams (up to four people) under 20 years of age who want to pursue their technology-based entrepreneurship dream rather than go to college. 

Most of the opinion pieces I have read about this program excoriate this grant program for distracting young people from college and promoting Thiel's capitalistic vision.  But to be fair, that might be due to my own biases in websites and reading materials, given that Mr. Thiel is an acknowledge ultra-libertarian and I am....not.  And I have to say that I don't necessarily agree that this is a terrible program.

For one thing, the Thiel Fellowships are targeted towards only 20 projects, or a maximum (if every project has the maximum number of participants) of 80.  Given that there were a record 2.6 million students in U.S. higher education in 2008, that is only a drop in a drop in a drop of the bucket of college students.  I don't think the Thiel Fellowships are going to dissuade any significant number of students from attending college.

But I do think that the Thiel Fellowships is an acknowledgment of something that we as parents as well as citizens as well as policy makers don't like to admit--that college isn't for everyone.   So do I want my son to go to college?  DEFINITELY.  But if we get there and that's just not the right path for where he is in his life journey, then I think I need to let go of that.  Because in the end, it is his life, not mine.  And if he happens to be one of those advanced thinkers who has an idea that could transform life as we know it---like Apple Computers did, or Microsoft did, or Dell Computers did, or Google did--then this program, with not only money available, but also access to mentors of the caliber or Thiel and his associates, might be exactly what is needed.  To me it looks like kind of a MacArthur genius grant for young entrepreneurs.

I am particularly persuaded by what Thiels says is the motivation behind the grant.  In the video in which he announces the program (around point 15:20 on the linked video), Thiels says he established the grants because he is afraid that the increased debt that college students are taking on in order to complete college are reducing their ability and/or willingness to take the kind of risk it takes to create break-through technology that is needed to solve societal problems like alternative energy or the next level of computer applications.  Again, I think he is probably right in that assessment. 

So I'm not concerned about 20-80 students a year receiving money to receive an education in hard knocks instead of in the Ivy Tower (as much as I loved that time myself).  Actually, my real hesitation is that this may not not really a grant program at all, but a way for Thiel to cull the brightest thinkers and to get to invest in whatever is the NEXT Facebook or PayPal or whatever.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is the movie "The Social Network" GOOD for Reducing College Application Anxiety?

OK, so now I've REALLY got to see this movie!

I'm speaking of "The Social Network," the movie about which I wrote in a previous post as potentially misrepresenting both the study of innovation and of history (even though, admittedly, I haven't seen it.).  Then today, my favorite newspaper writer on the education beat, Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, had a fabulous article about how well the movie represents undergraduate life in Ivy League schools (Mathews attended Harvard, as did Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman, although I think Mathews graduated, unlike Zuckerman).

Mathew advises college-anxious parents to pay attention to what the students are talking about in the film.  According to Mathews, they talk about, ummmm, let's call it "dating," clubs, parties, technology, making contacts, making money, and so on.  What they do not talk about is their classes, their teachers, their homework, their "Dead Poet Society"-like inspiration that evokes new levels of passion for their chosen fields.

And that, according to Mathews, is the reality of undergraduate education at Ivy League-level colleges like Harvard (at least, in his personal and professional experience).  It is not a community of inspired learners who devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and forging new understanding of their chosen fields.  It is a community of people who excelled in high school (otherwise they wouldn't be there), but who otherwise act like undergraduates at almost all schools--caught up in new experiences, testing out living on their own, devoted to their favorite clubs, activities, or relationships....much or most of which may have little or nothing to do with their classes.

For years, Mathews has been trying to convince people that acceptance to an Ivy League or similarly competitive schools is not like obtaining a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, of which only FIVE exist and only that will allow you in the running to run the Chocolate Factory.    The author of Harvard Schmarvard:  Getting Beyong the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You, Mathews argues that dedicated students can find at least as good educational opportunities, and in some cases, even better ones at the lesser-known, less competitive, but more undergraduate-focused universities than at iconic institutions like Harvard.  He recommends that high school students (and their families) also read a new book, Debt-Free U:  How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents by Zac Bissonette.  This book, Mathew claims, demonstrates how someone who is truly passionate about their academics can create a superior intellectual program at a state university to what the typical student experiences at schools that will cost a quarter of a million dollars to complete (see my earlier post for more details on that subject).

Who knew that move would foment so much discussion on educational issues?  I really do feel like I have to see it now, when before the major attraction in the movie for me was seeing Justin Timberlake, whom I like, not in a cougar way, but as someone who seems like a nice guy with considerable talents (I particularly liked his duet with Al Green on "Let's Stay Together" when the 2009 Grammy show had to find a last-minute replacement for the just-incarcerated Chris Brown).

I'll let you know what I think once I've seen it myself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Career Exploration Resources: Interest and Values Profilers

I ran into an interesting online source that might help high schoolers in their quest to find their future career.

The O*NET Online website, developed by the US Department of Labor, bills itself as "the nation's primary source of occupational information."  It has a wealth of information about different occupations, skills required in different fields, and such topics as apprenticeships and education.  The information and assessment tests on the site are linked to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' comprehensive database entitled the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011.  The Handbook projects the job outlook for a plethora of different occupations up to 2018, as well as containing such valuable information as average salary, educational or experiential requirements, etc.

My favorite part of O*NET are the online career assessment tools they have.  One, the Computerized Interest Profiler (CIP), asks questions about what you would or would not like to do for work, and then suggests occupations that fit with your interests.  It categorizes your specific interests into six different themes that suggest what aspects of jobs are most important to you personally.  So, for example, when I took the test, I scored VERY high on Social, fairly high on Artistic and Investigative---and got ZERO (0) points in both Realistic and Conventional (scores that I'm sure will shock those who know me).

The other assessment is the Work Importance Profiler (WIP), which is more an assessment of the values that are important to you....that is, such factors as job security, on-the-job training, recognition, or advancement, the ability to work alone and/or independently, those sorts of things.  I think this one might be trickier for students to answer, because you have to rank things in relative importance, which is harder than just saying whether or not you like to do something.  I think it may also be hard for them to consider some of these factors if they haven't had any experience working.

But still, I find these things fascinating.  In my case, my top work values were, in order:
Achievement--The Achievement work value involves the need to use your individual abilities and have a feeling of accomplishment.
Relationships--The Relationships work value includes the need for friendly co-workers, to be able to help others, and not be forced to go against your sense of right and wrong.
Independence--The Independence work value refers to the need to do tasks on your own and use creativity in the workplace. It also involves the need to get a job where you can make your own decisions.

My less important values, in order, were:
Recognition--The Recognition work value involves the need to have the opportunity for advancement, obtain prestige, and have the potential for leadership.
Support--The Support work value involves the need for a supportive company, be comfortable with management's style of supervision, and a competent, considerate, and fair management.
Working Conditions--The Working Conditions work value refers to the need to have your pay comparable to others, and have job security and good working conditions. You also need to be busy all the time and have many different types of tasks on the job.

Again, I would say that assessment is pretty spot on.  After all, no one who highly values Recognition, Support, and Working Conditions would ever end up homeschooling!

You can download the CIP and the WIP from O*NET to run on your own computer, but I also found two state employment agencies where you could just do it online.  The information links to job or educational opportunities in that state, but I think the overall suggestions for matching occupations are the same, and I didn't want to bother with downloading and installing the software.  So I took the CIP at the Washington State Employment Security Department site and the WIP at Career Zone California.

It is a fun exercise to do, just to see what they suggest.   For example, according to my WIP results, I should be working in music theater....which is funny, because it is a love of mine, but I lack the talent to work in that field.  Being a secondary school teacher, while not incompatible with my values, was way down on the list, but being a postsecondary teacher was fairly high up.  And one of the top suggestions for both my CIP and WIP was Meeting and Convention Planner, which is a job I think I would enjoy--and, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, would make from 50-100% MORE than being a school teacher.

Anyway, I think such tools are a good way to diversify students' viewpoints about the careers they might consider.