Tie Died

Yesterday the Bus-Riding Conservative (who hasn’t been riding the bus much these days since the office has been closed) sent around a picture of himself wearing a mask and a suit and tie.  He was donning his lawyer garb and mask to attend an important meeting, and he looked like a dashing corporate raider or somebody getting ready to rob a high-end country club — after cocktails, of course.

title-image-1But the BRC made a somewhat shocking confession in conjunction with sending his photo.  He admitted that it actually felt good to put on a tie after enduring a long, tieless period.

I’m surprised that the BRC’s astonishing statement didn’t produce thunderbolts from on high or breathless news reports that hell had frozen over, because it is likely the first time in the history of western civilization that a man has said that it felt good to put on a scrap of colored cloth that is specifically designed to cinch down on your windpipe and your sagging neck wattles and serves no functional purpose whatsoever, other than to become stained by splashes of food during power lunches.

The BRC’s mind-boggling confession got me to thinking, and I realized two things.  First, I don’t miss wearing a tie in the slightest, although I will certainly put one back on, as part of the lawyer’s uniform, when things get back to some semblance of normalcy.  And second, this has undoubtedly been the longest I’ve gone without wearing a tie in decades.  This coming week will mark my three-month anniversary in the untied category.  That hasn’t happened since at least law school — which ended, incidentally, during Ronald Reagan’s first term — and maybe since college, back in the Carter Administration.  And even in college, we periodically had parties following a Blue Brothers theme where the costume required attendees to put on a hat, tie, and sunglasses.  We may be going all the way back to high school.

I’ve written before about what parts of the new, coronavirus world will continue, and what parts will end when a vaccine is invented or “herd immunity” is achieved.  Even before COVID-19 struck, there was a strong push against standard business attire — including tie — and in favor of general “business casual” requirements, in which the tie went the way of the Dodo.  It will be interesting to see whether we’ve seen the last gasp of the necktie in the business world, and it turns out to be one of the many victims of the coronavirus.

If it is, there won’t be many male mourners — other than the BRC, of course.

Demise Of The Inner Long-Haired Kid

My last haircut was on February 24. The calendar tells me that means I’ve had a three-month, state-enforced hiatus from barbering. Even with three months of unimpeded hair growth, though, my hair now is still much, much shorter than it was in high school or college — which tells you something about how short I have been getting it cut these days, and how long it used to be during the ‘70s.

It makes me wonder about my teenage self, and how in the world that person could possibly have put up with long hair. I’ve discovered I really don’t like the feeling of hair brushing against my ears, or on the back of my neck. In fact, right now my whole head feels like I’m wearing a kind of clammy coonskin cap. It’s not a pleasant feeling — but I don’t remember having those kinds of reactions during my my shaggy early years. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true.

And now I think longer hair is a pain for other reasons. I’ve had to break out my comb again to part it and try to arrange it on my head. You can’t just towel it dry — and I’m not going to start using a blow dryer, either. This reality makes me think that I spent a lot more time in front of the mirror in those days, fiddling around with things I just don’t have the patience or inclination to do these days.  Back then I obviously had a lot more time on my hands than I do now. 

I get my hair cut on Tuesday, and I’m looking forward to it, masks and all. In fact, this whole experience makes me wonder how much my current self and my 20-year-old self would really have in common — beyond liking the same music and reruns of Star Trek.

John Prine And Roommate Music

I was very sorry to read of the death this week of John Prine, one of the great songwriters of his generation, from complications of the coronavirus.  At the same time, thinking about John Prine, and how I first heard his music, took me back to some happy memories.  I think John Prine probably would have liked that.

John Prine on campus of Georgia State College - November 12, 1975I first heard John Prine’s music in college.  My college roommate was a huge fan of John Prine, and in our apartment John Prine songs were an inevitable part of the playlist.  Sam StoneIllegal Smile, and Please Don’t Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground (which is probably not the actual title of the song, but is how I remember it) and a bunch of other great songs with great lyrics were all in the rotation.  John Prine was a good example of how actually going to college (as opposed to attending virtual school, which is what people are now forecasting might be the future) had the effect of broadening the cultural horizons of college students in those days in the long ago ’70s.

My roommate and I each had an extensive record collection, featuring both albums and 45s, and they fit together almost perfectly, with virtually no overlap — well, except for the Beatles, because everyone had the Beatles albums.  He had a lot of John Prine, Creedence, and every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as some great 45s from the ’60s, and I had a lot of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, jazz, and classical stuff.  We played it all, and quickly came to enjoy and appreciate each other’s music.  When the college days moved behind us, I still listened to all of it, and even now, 40 years later, still think automatically of John Prine lyrics that suit the situation.

And the real acid test is:  what songs of an artist do you sing in the shower?  For me, that’s John Prine’s Bad Boy:

I been a bad boy
I been long gone
I been out there
I never phone home
I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been
I’ve been a bad boy again

I got a way of
Fallin’ in love
With angels that don’t shove
You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round
In a real fog
I was your best friend
Now I’m a real dog
I never thought that now
Would ever catch up with then
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy
I sung a wrong song
I took a left turn
I stayed too long
As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t
Just like all other men
I’ve been a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in
Makes me a bad boy again

RIP, John Prine — and thanks to my college roommate for allowing me to make your acquaintance and enjoy your music.

At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

From The Pre-Hugging Period

Tomorrow night I’m having dinner with my college roommate, who’s coming to town for work.  We’ve known each other since, like, 1976, and it will be good to see him and catch up on things.

hapa-handshake-300x300-1But as I was walking home last night, I was thinking:  how do I greet him when we first see each other?

You see, our friendship dates back to the pre-hugging period.  In those days, men simply didn’t give a friendly hug as a hello.  I don’t think I ever saw my grandfathers or my father hug anyone, male or female, and I don’t remember any my high school or college friends going the hugging route, either.  It was also before the dawn of the “bro bump,” the combination move that occurs where the two men greeting each other shake hands and collide shoulder to shoulder at the same time, or the half hug, where the greeters stand shoulder to shoulder and put an arm around each other’s shoulder, without going for the full hug.

In those days, there were three potential forms of male greeting — manly nod, manly handshake, and manly handshake coupled with manly backslap, in roughly that order of ascending friendliness.  The only deviation from the norm in the stilted ’70s came if you encountered a fellow college student and gave the revolutionary hippie handshake, pictured with this post, where your thumb was somehow pointing upward.  The revolutionary/hip handshake fell out of fashion as quickly as ’70s hairstyles and leisure suits, however, and even if I wanted to give it in greeting I couldn’t because I don’t remember how to do it.

Acceptable forms of greeting are pretty confusing these days because there are so many options, and you don’t want to chose the wrong one and be left hanging.  I guess I’ll go with the regular, firm handshake that was my grandfathers’ and father’s preferred form of greeting.  It may be boring and old-fashioned, but it’s at least stood the test of time.

Socialists In The Midst

Over the weekend Kish and I went for a walk.  About a block from our house, near St. Mary, we found a poster encouraging people to attend the “launch meeting” for a new group called the Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists (“CORS”).

The CORS recruiting sign reminded me of the signs that were posted around the Ohio State campus by the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade back in the ’70s.  Like those placards from decades ago, the CORS poster complains about bosses and landlords, “racist cops brutalizing our communities,” “imperialist wars,” and “poverty and powerlessness.”  There are some new parts to the revolutionary agenda, too — like concerns about “the threat of climate catastrophe” and attacks on immigrants and refugees — but the bottom line is pretty similar:  fighting against “the exploitation and oppression we face everyday under capitalism” by forming an organization to “fight for the end of the current system and the creation of one run by and for the working class!”  About the only thing missing from the signs I remember from my college days was a reference to “the masses.”

There’s one other difference between the RCYB of days gone by and CORS — like everybody else these days, CORS has a Facebook page, where a group of what apparently are CORS’ founding members — one of whom is wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt — are shown giving the revolutionary fist sign.

The revolutionary socialist agenda went underground during the Reagan era, but socialism has now emerged from behind closed doors and is back in the American political mix these days, with candidates for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020 and some of the new members of the Party in Congress identifying as socialists.  It will be interesting to see how much traction the socialist agenda gets in the United States — particularly when some countries that adopted what were advertised as socialist systems, like Venezuela, have become train wrecks where the ordinary people live in poverty and misery.

It’s also interesting that the agendas and terminology of the revolutionary groups are so similar to what we’ve seen before.  Facebook page or not, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Operation Varsity Blues

Yesterday federal prosecutors announced that charges were being brought against dozens of people who allegedly were involved in a scheme to use bribery and fraud to get kids admitted into elite American schools.  The investigation — code-named Operation Varsity Blues — swept in Hollywood stars, corporate executives, and high-powered lawyers, all of whom allegedly took illegal steps to game the college admissions process.  The U.S. attorney who announced the results of the investigation and the arrests called the parents “a catalog of wealth and privilege.”

1552422542439The prosecutors says it’s the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the federal government.  Charges were announced against fifty people, including nine college coaches and 33 parents, who are collectively accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes to college coaches and administrators.  Individual parents were alleged to spend between $200,000 and $6.5 million in the scam, and allegedly hired an “admissions consultant” to make the bribes, falsely present their kids as star athletes to increase their chances of admission, and hire people to take admissions tests in their children’s stead.

The schools involved — which included elite institutions like Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown — are not targets of the investigation, and some said they were victims of the alleged scam.  No students are being prosecuted, either.  The alleged scam involved college coaches in sports like soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball being bribed to put students on lists of recruited athletes, which helped their admissions chances, and parents claiming their kids had learning disabilities that would give them privacy and extra time to take admissions tests and facilitate tampering with scores.

The scam says something sad about the parents who were caught in the dragnet and allegedly participated in the scheme.  They apparently have so little confidence in the actual abilities of their kids, and so much confidence in the allure of elite colleges, that they are willing to participate in fraud and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get their kids in the door, figuring that a degree from one of those schools is all their kids need to secure their futures.  In short, the parents don’t think it’s a meritocracy out there in the real world, and if you’ve got a degree from the right school it will put you on Easy Street for the rest of your days.

The college admissions process is a tough time for parents and students alike, and often the process doesn’t seem fair.  This scandal isn’t going to help that perception.  As the article linked above states:  “The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.”  How many parents who are stressing about their kids and colleges are going to think about that come admissions time?

Crossing The “Critical Edition” Barrier

For a 2019 New Year’s resolution, of sorts, I vowed to try to read at least one book that is more challenging than my normal fare.  In furtherance of that goal, I went to the library and picked up Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, in the Penguin Classics edition.  That means the book comes with a lengthy introduction, an appendix, and lots of footnotes — all of which make the book seem more mentally demanding than, say, your standard sci fi fiction.

img_8056Admittedly, presenting a Charles Dickens novel as some kind of awesome intellectual gauntlet is a bit dodgy.  After all, Dickens was easily the most popular writer of his day, read avidly in both England and America, and David Copperfield was one of his most popular books.  Dickens made huge amounts of money through his writings and his literary tours, where he would read aloud from his works to large live audiences.  Some sources contend that, during his heyday, 1 in 10 Britons who could read read Dickens’ books — which is pretty astonishing, if true.

But here’s the thing:  those readers of the past didn’t read David Copperfield in the form of a Norton Critical Edition, or a Penguin Classics volume, knowing that the book is generally considered to be one of the Greatest Novels of All Time.  Anyone who has taken a British Literature or Comparative Literature course in college knows about the “critical editions,” which expect the reader to carefully digest every sentence, pick up nuances and associate them with historical and cultural figures of the time, analyze the plot and the characteristics of the characters, and correctly interpret the text for underlying messages.  Even now, decades after the final exam in my last literature course, my heart quailed at the prospect of tackling an esteemed writing presented in the “critical edition” format.

I skipped the lengthy introduction to David Copperfield and went straight to the book itself.  The first sentence reads:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course, being a “critical edition,” there’s got to be a footnote in there somewhere.  Sure enough, “hero” is footnoted.  When, out of curiosity, I went back to the back of the book to read the footnote, it said this:  “hero:  Carlyle discussed the hero as “the man of letters” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841).  See Introduction.”

Really?  I’m supposed to interrupt the flow of the book in the very first sentence to read that?  Who gives a flying fig what “Carlyle” has to say?  The footnote was almost a parody of academic overkill — which is really why so many of us hated “critical editions” in the first place.

So, with David Copperfield, I’m going to try to break through the “critical edition” barrier.  Footnotes be damned!  I’m going to read David Copperfield like those adoring Britons did, like any other book, without worrying about introductions or critical context or the comments of Carlyle.  Who knows?  Maybe underneath all of the academic posturing and overlays of intellectualism, there’s actually an interesting story in there somewhere.

The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.

 

Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

The Case For Making Your Bed

Every morning, just before it’s time to head off to work, I make the bed.  I pull the sheets taut, put the pillows back in their place, adjust the blanket so that it’s the same length on all sides of the bed, and make sure there are no wrinkles to be seen.  Making the bed is just part of the morning ritual that means I’m now ready to face the day — but apparently not everybody does it.

I read an interesting piece recently about the simple act of making your bed, and what it means. It’s entitled The Unmade Bed and the Fall of Civilization, which is a little over the top, but the essential point holds:  little things matter.  They’re not significant by themselves, but they can add up to big things — and it really doesn’t take much time to take care of them, when you think about it.

So why not do those little things?

Clean off your dishes and put them in the dishwasher, so they’re not left for your spouse or roommate to deal with, and then rinse down the sink.  Hang up your coat and your clothing rather than tossing them over a chair.  Put old magazines and newspapers into the recycling bin.  Pick up after yourself, and when you leave a room see that it’s tidy.  Take out the trash before the wastebaskets are full to overflowing.  And make your bed.

I was a total slob in college — who wasn’t? — but when I graduated and moved into the working phase of my life I decided I needed more order.  The best way to accomplish that was to start to do those little tasks myself.  I found that it not only made our place look better, it also made me feel better, both when I was doing those little chores and when I got home to a place that was neat and shipshape.  Doing those things made me feel like I was was pitching in, carrying my share of the household load, and actually behaving like an adult.  After college, that seemed like a worthy goal.  Now it’s all habit — but I still like the feeling I get when I do those little things.

So every morning, I make the bed.  And by the way, if you make the bed properly, when you climb back into bed at night you’ll find that the sheets are cool and inviting, even on a hot Midwestern summer evening.  It’s just one of the benefits of trying to live an orderly life.

 

A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

Old Vegas

If you head down the Strip toward the towering Stratosphere, it’s a bit like walking back in time. You leave behind all of the huge, sprawling casino and hotel complexes, with their lovely pools and different entertainment options and fine dining establishments, and end up passing places that are much more modest in scale and cost. These are places that date back to the earlier days of Vegas, when wedding chapels, all-you-can-eat buffets, and inexpensive motel rooms were among the attractions.

One of the places you’ll pass is Circus Circus, with its giant neon clown sign. When I came to Vegas in the late ’70s with college buddies, Circus Circus was one of our specific destinations because it was featured in one of our favorite books — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. We played blackjack there, watched some of the circus acts, and used some lucky winnings to wolf down a huge meal at the all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet.

When Doctor Gonzo wrote the book, Circus Circus was one of the new generation of casino hotels. Given Las Vegas’ seemingly constant reinvention of itself, I wondered if I would find on this trip that Circus Circus had been replaced by some new shimmering tower. I was glad to see that it is still there, offering a glimpse of a different Vegas.

Should Federal Taxpayers Pay Off Student Loans?

During the 2016 presidential election, the student loan debt of Americans was one of the issues that attracted attention.  Bernie Sanders, for example, advocated for the federal government paying the college tuition of students attending public colleges and universities — with the cost to be covered by a tax on “Wall Street speculators” — and others argued that the federal government should pay off the student loans of college graduates who have found that the real-world problem of paying off their debt is interfering with their ability to follow their dreams.

So, should the federal government pay off student loan debts?  After all, the feds bailed out GM and has helped the big banks, and our politicians have just approved a $1.3 trillion interim spending package — so why not just toss a few billion dollars more onto the national debt load and help out those overwhelmed college grads who are working as waiters or baristas rather than pursuing whatever career awaits philosophy majors?

One of the problems with one-size-fits-all solutions is that, by definition, they do not take into account the important differences that may be revealed if individual circumstances are examined.  That’s where a recent survey of college students comes in.  A company called LendEDU, which operates in the student loan space, polled 1,000 college students at four-year institutions who are receiving student loans — and it found that more than half of them admitted to using their student loan proceeds to pay for spring break vacations.

That’s possible because of the way student loans are administered.  Colleges and universities get the proceeds, take out the tuition costs, and then remit the remainder to the students — who can use it for pretty much whatever they want, including some fun in the sun with their fellow students.  The LendEDU poll isn’t scientific, and of course there are highly responsible college students who aren’t using their student loan proceeds for a frolic and detour on the beach.  Nevertheless, how students actually used their student loans certainly seems like the kind of information we’d want to consider before we decide to pay off their debts.  (And, incidentally, I would apply the same test before bailing out large corporate institutions, too.)

Which of the federal taxpayers among us wants to foot the bill for last Saturday’s excellent kegger?

One Reason Why College Is So Expensive

There’s a longstanding debate in the United States about how expensive college has become, and what to do about it.  Some people say we need to get over the notion that every young person needs to go to college, and recognize that learning a trade that is always going to be needed is a perfectly fine way to live a happy, productive life.  Others argue that we need to make college loans more available, and at better terms, and still others say that students loans are a long-term trap for the borrowers and therefore the federal government should pay for college.

Curiously, there’s not much of an outcry for colleges and universities to actually take steps to cut their costs and, as a result, cut their tuition.  And while there are some low-cost alternatives, in the form of community colleges, traditional economics don’t seem to apply to the college decision-making process.  Low-cost competitors don’t restrain the pricing of tuition at more prestigious institutions, because there is always a gaggle of parents, and students, willing to pay exorbitant amounts to go to Harvard, or Stanford, and acquire the diploma from an eminent school.

stanford-university-696x391Could colleges and universities cut costs and offer lower tuitions?  A recent article about the school bureaucracy at Stanford points to one way it could be done.   The article describes the explosive growth in the administrative apparatus at the school and cites some interesting statistics:

“Expenditures for non-academic administrative and professional employees have doubled at US colleges in the past 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students and faculty. According to the Department of Education, administrative positions have grown by 60% between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Private schools are more guilty than their public school contemporaries; there are now 2.5 non-academic employees for every full-time tenure-track faculty member at private institutions, which exceeds the 2:1 ratio at public universities. A proliferation of associates and assistants, marketers and managers, now outnumber faculty and TAs.”

Why has the number of administrative employees at colleges doubled, and what do all of these people do?  Were you aware that, at Stanford, there is an “Office of Alcohol and Policy Education” that has its own associate dean, assistant director, operations manager, and assistant dean?  Or a Students & Activities Leadership area that is supposed to “help students find community and foster passions” that has four professional staff members?  And the growing college bureaucracy not only contributes to the spiraling cost of an education; the article linked above argues that the administrative state at Stanford not only consumes resources and money, but also “strangles student culture” and harms the education students receive.

When I went to school at Ohio State in the ’70s, the administrative part of the University was small, and many of the positions and offices described in the article about Stanford didn’t exist.  And, not coincidentally, tuition was very reasonable.  And while some new positions are logical and appropriate, such as those that seek to enhance diversity and inclusion on campus, the need for other additions is highly debatable.  When I was in college, we didn’t need school administrators to help us “foster passions” or “find community,” we somehow managed to do it ourselves.  And maybe it would be better for students, and a more fitting preparation for the real world, if students had to muddle through themselves without having an army of officious administrators dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Are there school trustees, or college presidents, out there who are willing to tackle cutting bloated administrative budgets, eliminating nonessential positions, and making the cost of an education more affordable?  We may find out only of students and parents decide to stop writing blank checks when it comes to tuition.