Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rising Costs of College

For your Halloween-eve enjoyment/terror, I've got something scarier than any ghost, zombie, monster, or masked killer...OK, maybe not the masked killer, but still pretty scary...

Here is a chart by the Freakonomics guys about the rising cost of college tuition between 1978 and 2008:
© 2011 Freakonomics, LLC

The chart only shows private colleges, but I believe the figures are pretty much the same for public ones as well.  And to take away your last hopes, although this chart only goes to 2008, it hasn't gotten any better in the last few years, particularly with all the cuts to state budgets.  According to Freakonomics, here are the figures for college tuitions in 2011-2012:
  • The average published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions was $8,244 in 2011-12, which is 8.3%, or $631, higher than in 2010-11. Average total for tuition, fees, room and board, were $17,131, up 6.0 percent.
  • For out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities, the published average was $20,770, which is 5.7%, or $1,122, higher than in 2010-11. Average total charges were up 5.2% to $29,657.
  • The percentage increase was smaller, but the totals are still higher at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities.  The published tuition and fees averaged $28,500 in 2011-12, which was 4.5%, or $1,235, higher than in 2010-11. The total average charges were up 4.4% to $38,589. 
  • The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.The average increase in published in-state tuition and fees at public two-year colleges was even higher.  They totaled $2,963, which is 8.7%, or $236, higher than in 2010-11.
  • Holding the line at a mere 3.2% increase were the average published tuition and fees, which were estimated at $14,487 in 2011-12.
The question nobody seems to be able to answer definitely is WHY college tuition is rising at three times the cost of living, higher even than our sky rocketing health care costs.  

One silver lining to note, however, is that these figures are the PUBLISHED tuition and fees.  In recent years, many, if not the majority, of students are actually paying substantially less than the published rate, at least for state and nonprofit four-year colleges, due to grants and scholarships and such.  The Obama administration is now requiring colleges to post a calculator on their websites so families can input their income information and such, and get a better idea of the real costs they will be expected to pay.  This at least allows students to better compare colleges on what their real, ultimate costs will be, not just to dismiss certain colleges on their published fees when they would probably be required to pay less.

But I don't think anyone has any good ideas about how to reign in these soaring increases in college costs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Do Too Many Kids Go to College?

That was the question being examined last Wednesday in Chicago, in a formal, Oxford-style debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared US, a recent American import of an English organization that sponsors academic debates among the top thinkers on various public policy issues.  Each side debates, an audience votes, and a winner is determined by who has won the most votes.  But the larger point, of course, is to raise the level of discussion of these issues and to expose the public to some arguments that they haven't heard before on these contentious subjects.

Appearing on the PRO side of the Do Too Many Kids Go to College? question was Peter Thiel.  Peter Thiel, besides being the co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, has established the Thiel Fellowships to pay up to $100,000 to up to 20 young people or teams NOT to go to college, but to invest in their entrepreneurial ideas instead (for more information, read my earlier post).  Thiel argues that college costs have gotten way out of hand, landing students with excessive loan burdens that restrict their future options.  In the debate, he pointed out that, adjusting for inflation, college costs have gone up 300% since 1980--more than any other cost, including health care, housing costs, taxes, etc.  He also believes many are better served if they get some life experience first, then go to college with those lessons in the real world under their belts.

Also on the PRO side was Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, about the role of IQ in the class structure of the US.  He maintained his controversial tone, such as this quote of his from the debate:
Almost everybody needs more education after high school.  What they don't need is this fraudulent, destructive, antediluvian thing called a PA.  The thesis of my argument is really that the BA is the work of the devil.
OK, then....

On the CON side was Vivek Wadhwa, who writes for the Washington Post and Bloomberg Business Week while serving as the Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School.  He discussed this in an international perspective, and argued that the outflow of jobs to other countries, such as India, with a high percentage of college graduates would only intensify if we don't continue to graduate our students from college.

Joining him for the CON arguments was Henry Bienen, the former President of Northwestern University.  He pointed that while unemployment for college graduates may be at an all-time high, it is still only one third of the rate of unemployment for those lacking a college degree.

If you would like to watch the entire debate, or to read a transcript, you can see it on the Intelligence Squared US website.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Curriculum Resource NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program (with special guest appearance by Eragon's Christopher Paolini)

Good news--the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website for 2011 is up!  You are probably familiar with the NaNoWriMo program--that is, the short-hand description for NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, an online effort to encourage thousands of adults to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of a month (and  November, one of those only 30 day months at that).  It is supposed to be an intense writing experience, which I hope to do one of these years (but I don't think this will be the year).

However, my son would like to do NaNoWriMo this year.  Fortunately for him, they have a great website that supports younger writers (who also get to work towards a smaller total word count).  The site has countdown clocks and word counters and Internet badges and lots of cool stuff like that to attract students to the project.  It also has some things to get them over writer's block, such as a Dare Machine, which "dares" authors to include certain things in their stories or try some fun writing exercises, such as having your characters write a novel about YOU.  

But once November starts, much of the program is geared towards encouraging students to actually finish the novels they have begun.  One way they do that is to have published authors send emails to the students with bits of advice or pep talk.  And guess who will be sending some emails this year?  None other than Christopher Paolini, who wrote the first of his famous Eragon series when he was 15 and was homeschooling.  Now, with 25 million of his books sold worldwide, he is the hero among young writers, but especially among those who homeschool.

HOWEVER--even if you and your students/children aren't participating, there are still resources to check out.  Of particular interest to teachers is their collection of hour-long lesson plans about many aspects of writing, including creating characters, developing conflict, writing good dialogue, choosing a setting that support the characters, and so on.  Click here to see the full list of lesson plans available for high school students.

So whether or not you end up writing a novel in a month, it is a curriculum resource that is worth checking out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review of the Hunger Games series, with a little Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and Twilight Thrown In

The popular media item I was most wrong about was The Pirates of the Caribbean movie. When I heard that Disney was going to make a movie based on a ride at one of its theme parks, I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard. Even when I found out that Johnny Depp, whom I love love LOVE, was going to star, still, I was not a believer. But when I actually watched the movie, I thought it was GREAT for the kind of film it was. Fun, fantastic, swashbuckling action, and interesting, larger-than-life characters, most especially the one-of-a-kind Captain Jack Sparrow that Depp created. But it has some interesting meat as well--some valuable lessons amongst all the ghosts and pirates and young lovers and such. It was a perfect summer blockbuster film, and I admit I was completely wrong in my pre-judgements.

But my second most egregious error may be my previous dismissal of The Hunger Game series.

The premise of the book--that is, a bunch of teenagers who have to fight to the death for the amusement of the TV audience--sounded like yet another grim, post-apocalyptic YA novel filled with senseless violence (which to me, a perennially upbeat person my entire life, seems inexplicably popular to today’s teenagers). But I was wrong. Well, it is a grim, post-apocalyptic that I’ve read the whole series, I’m not convinced it should be classified for Young Adults, unless by that they mean college students. Most of all, however, it is violent--more violent as the books proceed--but the violence is not senseless at all. The violence teaches us a lot. It teaches us about war, and about power, and about coercion. It teaches us about human nature, and how really horrible people can be to one another...but also how wonderful and loving and heroic they can be as well.

Because as it turns out, the fighting between the teenagers is really just the appetizer. The entire series is more of a meditation on totalitarianism, a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, it incorporates more modern aspects to it, such as the rise of reality television and the latest devices for warfare.

The series also kind of made me think of Harry Potter for grown-ups. Only instead of magical Hogwarts castles where the four houses competed in Quidditch and the House Cup, here we have the dystopic nation of Panen, where the citizens of the 12 Districts that remain of the United States compete simply to survive. And Voldemort, mean dude that he is for children’s literature, really can’t compare with the political leaders in the Hunger Games, who wipe out entire villages, schools, hospitals, or even a whole District, seemingly without a qualm. Because in the Hunger Games, they aren’t just messing around, trying to get rid of an elderly wizard and “the boy who lived.” In the Hunger Games, they are in all-out war.

So the Hunger Games books get high marks for realistically depicting what happens in war. And I think it is a valuable thing for young people to read. Again, I wouldn’t advise it for middle schoolers; that is, I think they could read it, but I don’t think they would GET it. But teenagers, college students, young graduates whose lives have basically been untouched by the multiple “wars” we are in and have been over the past 10-20 years, but where all the pain and suffering and destruction occurs only in foreign countries and among our paid military--this is a great wake-up call to how awful war really is. And one of the greatest questions raised, which runs through all the books, is who your enemy really is. That is not always an easy question to answer in a war.

HOWEVER....there is another side to the books.

War, and political coercion, and when and how to fight back, are definitely major themes of the series. But there is another backbone to the stories, and that (just like Harry Potter) is love. Yes, there is the love triangle, a la Twilight, except about ONE THOUSAND times better, since the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, and they demonstrate their love through their actions, not sitting around moony-eyed whining about how they can’t live (or not live....well, you know what I mean) without the other, like the dippy lovers in the current soap opera that is Mary Worth..

OK, sorry about that. I just had to get that out of my system.

So there is a love triangle, but the choice is much more realistic (vampire versus werewolf...come on). Do I choose the one who loves me irrationally and unconditionally, even though I don’t think s/he really knows me? Or do I choose the one who knows all about me, particularly my dark side, to which s/he seems to draw me? Actually choosing a partner not just by how s/he makes you feel (ESPECIALLY when you are awash in adolescent hormones), but by the way s/he acts and by the kind of person you are when you are with that person--now THAT is a lesson about love. Again, I’m not sure even teenagers are ready to think that way, but I’m pretty sure middle schoolers aren’t.

And the wonderful thing of the book is that is not the only type of love explored. There is love for family and love for friends and love for team mates and love for colleagues that maybe even should be thought of as enemies. There is love for the earth and love for the animals. There is all kinds of love. And that, again, lifts this series above the many dystopic YA series there are out there.

So in this series, there is war, and there is love. And because it is war, and because it is NOT Harry Potter (as much as I loved that series), if you make it through the end of the series, characters that you love will die. Because that is the reality of war. And you will be shocked, and you will miss them, and you may even cry, but you will go on to finish the book, and continue to appreciate them even after they have disappeared from the text. Because that is the reality of love.

So if you are up to experience all that--I don’t know a better current YA series to read.

PS--If you want to see my responses to the first two books in the series, visit: