College

When Life Bites You In The Class: Around the World, in Oakland, and on Campus

Is “middle class” a useful appellation when it means such drastically different things in different places? We’re not even talking Pittsburgh vs. Brooklyn here, but, like, Los Angeles vs. Laos:

Middle class is as much a matter of perception as statistics—the number of Americans describing themselves as middle class has remained essentially unchanged in recent years even as their incomes and spending power have eroded. When the same term is used to describe an American household bringing in up to $100,000 per year (according to a recent poll; $250,000 if you’re Mitt Romney) and Laotians living on $2 per day (according to the Asian Development Bank), it may not be a very useful term.

It’s relative, in other words, dependent on context. It means you’re less well-off than the well-off and not as poor as the poor.

Sometimes it means that you’re a white girl in 1990s Oakland whose radical parents could live elsewhere but don’t. In that situation, you identify in key ways with your non-white classmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the local swim team — especially when it comes to trying to finally depose the fancy-pants country club team that shows up with their matching swim suits and their hubcap-size muffins and wins everything. In that case, you want what your team wants: to wrench victory from the soft hands of the enemy, even if only this once. But you also occasionally, guiltily yearn for the pop culture version of white adolescence, where everything is safe and clean, cute and funny:

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Labor (Profs) vs Management (Administration) at Colleges Heats Up

Four intrepid professors have risked their future prospects to highlight the insane disparity in what college administrators are paid vs. everyone else, starting a popular movement. Even more nutty: this happened in Canada.

The current president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, is leaving next summer.* This means that her job, which pays at least 400,000 Canadian dollars (about $368,500), is up for grabs. I’m sure the search committee expected a lot of top talent in the application pool—but they probably didn’t expect 56 Canadian academics, fed up with a highly paid administration in the face of country-wide “austerity” measures, applying for Samarasekera’s job in groups of four.

The elaborate and serious joke—an HR performance piece, if you will, that would also happen to have spectacular results if it actually worked—is the brainchild of Dalhousie University professor Kathleen Cawsey and three friends, a Gang of Four whose pointed (and hilarious) cover letter has become a Canadian media cause célèbre.

Since each of us would love to get paid 1/4 of what the president is, the original letter pointed out, we’d be thrilled to share the position. As a bonus, we’d do an excellent job! Probably better than OSU’s E. Gordon Gee, who took a $6 million golden parachute with him when he retired in disgrace.

Rarely has a stunt so funny been quite so sobering.

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“I’ll Have a Venti Skim Half-Cap Frappucino and a BA, Please. No Foam.”

Amazon wants you to win you back. In addition to a new Prime Music Streaming service and a deafening whisper campaign about the super secret mystery Kindle smartphone it might have up its sleeve, it is also launching Smile, a program that allows you to choose a charity the store will support. Thanks, guys! But wouldn’t it be easier to treat authors, publishers, and maybe even employees a little better?

Starbucks, another massive corporation that has gotten flak for taking over the world and putting the little guy out of business, is trying to drum up some goodwill of its own in a very unusual, but more direct, way: subsidizing undergraduate education.

Starbucks will provide a free online college education to thousands of its workers, without requiring that they remain with the company, through an unusual arrangement with Arizona State University, the company and the university will announce on Monday. The program is open to any of the company’s 135,000 United States employees, provided they work at least 20 hours a week and have the grades and test scores to gain admission to Arizona State. For a barista with at least two years of college credit, the company will pay full tuition; for those with fewer credits it will pay part of the cost, but even for many of them, courses will be free, with government and university aid. …

Many employers offer tuition reimbursement. But those programs usually come with limitations like the full cost not being paid, new employees being excluded, requiring that workers stay for years afterward, or limiting reimbursement to work-related courses. Starbucks is, in effect, inviting its workers, from the day they join the company, to study whatever they like, and then leave whenever they like — knowing that many of them, degrees in hand, will leave for better-paying jobs.

Investing in your employees as a business strategy happens to be good PR. Win-win-win. Is Bezos taking notes?

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Link Round Up: Student Loans and More Student Loans; Millennials Hoarding Cash Like Dragons

President Obama’s move to help ease the student loan crisis started a cascade of think pieces about student loans over the weekend. Here are a couple of the most interesting:

Here’s Why the Student Loan Market Is Completely Insane, via Businessweek. Complete with charts! Oh, and facts, lots of sobering facts:

Default rates at such places as Stanford, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Yale are all less than 2 percent. Not surprisingly, graduates from these schools command high salaries in the job market. At such places as West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida, and Boise State—schools much better known for athletics than academics—default rates are 10 percent. Further down the food chain are much higher default rates at places such as Alcorn State (16 percent), Colorado Technical University (23 percent), University of Phoenix (26 percent), Lincoln Technical Institute (30 percent), and Arizona Automotive Institute (42 percent).

+ Finding Shock Absorbers for Student Debt, via the NYT, also concerns itself with the problem of default, and wants to help cushion students against the risks they incur by paying for college.

The core problem with student debt is that we don’t adequately insure students against the risk of investing in college. While a vast majority of undergraduates have borrowed much less than some headlines suggest — in one study from the last decade, 98 percent borrowed less than $50,000 and four out of 10 borrowed nothing at all — millions are in default or behind on payments. With damaged credit records, they face higher interest rates on car and home loans, rejected rental applications and lost job opportunities. … But how can we help in the short term? We should allow student-loan payments to rise and fall with income, as we do with Social Security and taxes. If borrowers hit a tough spell, payments should drop automatically. If they score well-paying jobs, payments should rise. This is called “income-based repayment.”

+ Perhaps all of this has something to do with why millennials are hoarding cash like dragons?

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President Obama to Students: Be Smart, Not Cynical

President Barack Obama joined David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, for a live chat about student debt Tuesday. One-third of Americans who applied for an educational loan this year also have a Tumblr account, said Karp, who fielded questions about educational costs submitted by Tumblr users. Here’s what POTUS had to say to today’s students.

My student debt was manageable, unlike yours.

Obama said that when he graduated with an undergraduate degree he was able to pay off his student loan debt in a year with a job that wasn’t particularly high paying. But today student loan balances average about $30,000.

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Does Success in One Area Mean Failure In Another?

Shonda Rhimes’ Dartmouth commencement speech just hit Medium. It’s ostensibly posted by Ms. Rhimes herself, which — I mean, I really want to break this down for a minute, she could have picked anywhere to post her speech, anywhere from HuffPo to The Atlantic to Kindle Singles, and she picked Medium? (Does Shonda Rhimes really need a gatekeeper-free publishing platform to share her message?)

Anyway, the speech is great, and the pull quote about “dreamers vs. doers” works, but to me, the most interesting part of the speech was the section that began:

Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing in another area of my life.

That is the truth, right there.

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7 More Reasons Why I Didn’t Study STEM

Yesterday’s piece, Why I Didn’t Study STEM, was true but, as you all noted, incomplete. Fair enough. Here are seven more reasons why I didn’t go from Mathlete to math major.

7. I lived in a small town, so I didn’t have any real ideas of what STEM careers were besides “crime-solving math detective.”

6. When I taught myself how to program in BASIC, I was much more interested in the nodes of the massive text adventure game I was building than the actual programming language.

5. When I signed up to take a programming course at the local college, I dropped it after the first session because the lab section would have conflicted with community theater rehearsals.

4. Also, community theater gave me actual jobs where I was paid money. Clearly, theater was where the jobs were.

3. I was also getting work as a church organist and choral accompanist. Nobody was interested in paying me to do science to things.

2. I never understood trigonometry (even though I probably could have learned it eventually) and have only the vaguest idea of what calculus actually is.

1. I spent most of high school writing a novel titled The Red Book of Cordia. The minute that was finished, I started writing a musical.

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Why I Didn’t Study STEM

I would have been the ideal STEM candidate.

As a young kid, I was fascinated with numbers and patterns. My favorite show, long after I should have outgrown it, was Mathnet. In elementary and middle school, I swept up ribbons at the regional Math Contests, and in high school, I was a Mathlete — for one year.

What happened after that year, of course, changed everything.

My rural school, which boasted 500 students from grades K-12 and fit them all into one building, was great at teaching arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and anything that you could do with pen and paper. Our science classes were fantastic at instructing us in the parts of a cell, the phylums and species, and anything that, again, could be solved with pen and paper.

Once the TI-89 calculator got involved, or the microscope, or any instrument more sophisticated than a mechanical pencil, everything fell apart. We just didn’t have the resources.

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College Is Expensive and the NY Times is ON IT

Yes, even the Gray Lady has seen fit to write about how soaring student loan debt makes it hard to get housing in New York City.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole exercise, especially because it refers to “real estate maturity” as a state of existence to which human beings should aspire, and because it reports both the breed and name of a frustrated apartment-seeker’s dog. However, for a piece of non-news reported by the New York Times, the article paints a refreshingly varied portrait of post-collegiate financial distress. After first introducing us to Tierney Cooke, the dog owner who finds living with roommates intolerable (“I couldn’t take it. They were all in college.”), the Times also presents the tales of a mother of a two-year-old and a marvelously disillusioned chemist.

There is truly nothing surprising in the fact that housing in one of the most expensive cities in the country is hard to get in the midst of long-term economic trends that send personal debt up and wages down. But the chemist, Joseph Trout, a former foster kid from Philly who made good, is a font of excellent financial advice for an era of scarcity.

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Crop Tops Cropped from College, Education = Reparations?, Academic Rejection vs Other Kinds

+ UT-Austin signs tell women how to dress so as not to be distracting and, according to Jezebel, crop tops are out.

Here are the things you cannot wear, if you want to learn to be a nurse at the University of Texas:

Midriff-baring shirts Short-shorts Low-rise pants Low-cut shirts that reveal cleavage

My K-12 religious school had a dress code that prohibited all of these things and I still feel funny if I wear them. My mind has been warped forever on the issue of modesty, which means I can’t be trusted to know whether this is egregious. Dress codes! Always unfair, if they’re only targeted at women? Justified in a context that has something to do with God, or taxes, or death? Can we trust students at a certain age to know how to dress appropriately and/or to not get life-threateningly distracted by a glimpse of skin?

+ Uh oh. STEM magic doesn’t work as well for black folks.

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