“Choosing THE RIGHT School”: BS or Total BS?

We’ve been talking a lot about college on the Billfold lately, which brings up an important question: How do you know if you chose the right school? People in our society make a fetish about picking the place that’s right for you as though there’s only one correct answer, and as though “the place that will give you the most aid” or “the state school closest to home” isn’t the guiding principle behind the way a lot of us make this choice.

Universities seem to serve as kind of a “You complete me” soul-mate stand-in. And for maybe the same reason we talk about “the one” in a romantic context, we take for granted that “the right” college exists out there for everyone interested in higher education. Doesn’t that raise expectations to an unreasonable level? After all, how do you evaluate the choice once you’ve made it? 

“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?

Slut-Shaming Is About Class, Not Sex

Scientists love to give us data to tell us that what we already suspect is true: calories are not created equal; climate change is already cooking our planet and it’s our fault; and so on. Well, in case you’ve ever wondered whether slut-shaming, or bullying people, usually women, for their sexuality, is more about richer folks consolidating their in-group power at the expense of poorer, out-group folks, congratulations! The scientists say that you’re right. According to Al-Jazeera America, slut-shaming is more about class than sex:

Sociologists from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Merced occupied a dorm room in a large Midwestern university, regularly interacting with and interviewing 53 women about their attitudes on school, friends, partying and sexuality from the time they moved in as freshman and following up for the next five years.

The researchers discovered that definitions of “slutty” behavior and the act of slut-shaming was largely determined along class lines rather than based on actual sexual behavior. What’s more, they found the more affluent women were able to engage in more sexual experimentation without being slut-shamed, while the less-affluent women were ridiculed as sluts for being “trashy” or “not classy,” even though they engaged in less sexual behavior.

Who Gets to Graduate

Hopeful, occasionally grim, altogether fascinating Paul Tough feature in the Times Magazine about the trouble high-achieving students from low-income families often have in graduating from college and what can be / is being done about it:

There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country — high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: They get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.

Vanessa, one of the less-affluent struggling students profiled in the piece, does many things right, like choosing the flagship institution UT-Austin in the first place. Tough notes, “The more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating.” Not too surprisingly, though, society cannot merely guide good students to good colleges, wave bye to them at the gate, and assume that they’ll succeed on their own.

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:

Places I’ve Lived: A Dormitory for the Arts, Urban Hilltops, and a Former Department Store

Where have you lived, Marissa Barker?

Donating To Your Problematic Alma Mater: Do or Don’t?

According to Jezebel, some fed up alumni are refusing to give to their alma maters until those institutions prove that they are doing a better job at handling reports of sexual assault:

Sixty colleges and universities are currently being investigated by the Department of Education over their abject inability to handle rape on campus that respects both the accused and the accuser. Even more have been in the news in recent years for failing to prioritize students’ safety over their reputation (and, by extension, their ability to convince alumni to cough up donations). Unfortunately for colleges and universities’ desire to sweep this sort of thing under the rug, it’s a lot harder for them to keep students quiet in the age of social media.

Alumni of at least three schools facing an avalanche of bad press from students who say they were treated poorly after being sexually assaulted are responding by telling administrators that words aren’t enough, and until concrete evidence exists that schools are serious about keeping students safe from sexual assault, they won’t be donating money.

Protesting with your pocketbook is a failsafe way to feel like you’re doing something to make your opinions known. Maybe donate to public radio instead? But, full disclosure, my college is one of the 60 and when I was asked to use my limited Klout to help the spring fundraising drive, I said sure. Although I understand if people feel differently, to me, the issues are separate; I want to support financial aid efforts and even, yes, the school in general. I guess it’s a combination of cynicism — I don’t believe my withholding an annual donation will have an impact if national attention AND federal investigation won’t — and sentimentality, because I really like my alma mater.

Like, on Labor Day, we had classes, but my firebrand American History prof, who had hair the color of toaster coils and was technically still a card-carrying communist with an actual card and everything, refused to teach. Instead she played us the Linda Tripp tapes so we could listen to a Woman Eating Potato Chips While Secretly Recording A Sad and Vulnerable Monica Lewinsky and Plotting to Bring the Nation to a Standstill So We Could All Talk About Blowjobs. That was an education. Also I met a guy at college who I later married, and lots of very important friends who shaped me, and yadda yadda yadda. But the rape crisis is real. Do you also feel conflicted about supporting your imperfect college, or do you view this issue as clear-cut?

Where Pop Culture Goes to College

Some universities work their way into the pop cultural oversoul. Harvard and Yale are shorthands for “prestige,” of course; those are obvious. Chronic over-achiever Rory Gilmore assumed she would go to one but then at the last minute went to the other. Schools are aware of their reputations, too, which makes it fun to watch them bicker with and backhand each other, like so:

Popular culture suggests that Harvard is the place to be. U.S. News & World Report places Harvard at the top of its college rankings. Films like Legally Blonde purport that we can be smart, glamorous and happy all at the same time. Platitudes tell us we should be having the time of our lives. And yet …  Perhaps #1 can learn something from #2.

Early “Simpsons” writers came fresh from The Crimson, so they injected lots of pro-Harvard sentiment into the show. The cretinous capitalist Mr. Burns, for example, is a Yalie. Lisa Simpson, like Rory, naturally wants to go to Harvard. When she dreams that the doors of Harvard are closed to her, the University President promises to forward her application on to–snicker–Brown. Being an iconoclast and a feminist, though, she also has more character-appropriate aspirations: in a different episode, she wails, “There go my girlhood dreams of Vassar!”

Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, NY, is the most expensive and, according to the experts at Gawker, Most Annoying College in the country (or did the crown end up going to Wesleyan?). It has become shorthand for “Small Elite Northeastern Liberal Arts College,” showing up so often in TV shows, books, and movies that the college even has a section of its Wikipedia page devoted to fictional alumni. Notables include Kat Stratford, in the movie 10 Things I Hate About YouAllison “Allie” Hamilton, in the movie The Notebook, and Remy “Thirteen” Hadley of the popular Fox medical drama House.

Recently, Oberlin has also gotten some time in the spotlight through the insecure narcissists on “Girls” and characters like Lutz on “30 Rock.” It is built into the character of Twofer that he’s a Harvard man and it feels similarly real that Liz Lemon went to the University of Maryland “on a partial competitive jazz dance scholarship.” (Perhaps she was friends with fellow alum Dana Scully from “The X Files”?) Jack Donaghy, like Sideshow Bob and other famous fictional Republicans, as well as, reportedly, God, is a Princeton Tiger.

It’s much more fun when authors and show-runners send their characters to real places rather than “Accidental College,” or “Hearst,” or “UC-Sunnydale.” It gives us in the audience more information about them, like that Buffy applied to and got into Northwestern (?!), and an opportunity to say, No way she would have gotten into / gone there. It also allows for exciting Fictional Alumni Face-Offs between the likes of Duke and Syracuse. After the jump, even more of our favorite fictional folks and their alma maters. Any of these not ring true to you? Is your school well-represented or not at all?

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.

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.

Perfect Commencement Speaker Gives Perfect Commencement Speech

Jill Abramson is unemployed. Over the years, she has worked hard, succeeded, been fired; now, in the process of trying to figure out What’s Next?, she is drawing on stores of resilience. Naturally, this makes her the perfect Commencement Speaker to address the Class of 2014:

Her speech was about “resilience,” she said, and was inspired by a call from her sister the day after she was, in no uncertain terms, “fired.” As proud as her father would have been to see her appointed the first female executive editor in Times history, “it meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and see us try to bounce back than how we handled our successes,” Abramson said. “Show what you are made of, he’d say.”

“I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school,” she continued. “You know the sting of losing or not getting something you really want. When that happens show what you are made of.” Abramson referenced other challenges she’s faced recently, including getting hit by a truck in Times Square seven years ago. “You may begin to call me Calamity Jill, but stay with me here,” she said. … “What’s next for me?” she added. “I don’t know, so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”

Uncertainty! Rejection! Trying hard, being deserving, and still not getting what you want! This is what we all face — throughout our lives but with particular force when we graduate from college and join a workforce that doesn’t care about our self-esteem or offer Trigger Warnings. NOTE: Why is our culture so resistant to “trigger warnings” when we’re all about ratings on movies, TV, and video games? Is it because, as Shine argues in the above link, we see TWs as yet another attempt by the joyless PC lady mafia to take fun away and tell us what to do?

Anyway, resilience makes a great subject for a commencement speech because, to some extent, how you react to the inevitable setbacks of your 20s is the only element of your 20s you can control. Like Samuel Becket famously said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Here are some more inspirational quotes about failure. You’re welcome.

photo via Quotes Pictures.com

Stand-Out College Essays About Money

When one reads the stand-out college essays about money printed in the New York Times, one has the overwhelming feeling that every one of these applicants better get into the college of his or her choice. If there is any justice in the world, admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and — interesting outlier here — Butler University will recognize how much talent is in front of them in the form of four very thoughtful seniors willing to engage with fraught subjects ranging from masculinity to homelessness, thrift store shopping to working part time at McDonald’s:

I felt guilty for thinking the life that I was living and the things I had weren’t enough and began to realize just how lucky I really am. I was born on third base in life, and most of the people I’ve met at McDonald’s are starting at home plate with two strikes and have very little chance of scoring a run in life, let alone winning the game. I understand now that for many, it is hard enough just to survive, let alone save up for an education that costs tens of thousands of dollars per year. … In life, it is really easy to get caught up in your own bubble and never really look outside of it. My time at McDonald’s has made me see the world in a completely different way.

My favorite is the controlled fire of Viviana Andazola Marquez.