My Cassandra Moment


“You are not going to believe this.”

-Cassandra

The other day I had my first “Cassandra moment”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, Cassandra was a figure from Greek mythology who was cursed to know the future and never be believed by anyone she told (seriously, that’s the shortest version I can manage. They all get weirder from there.) This has been used as the basis for the Cassandra metaphor, which you may know from the film 12 Monkeys (and if you don’t know that film I banish you until you do).

Are we all on the same page now? Good. So anyway, I was listening to the news and I noticed that I was hearing a lot of politicians and reporters talking about two things in very close proximity to each other: the fact that a high school diploma isn’t enough to get a “good job” anymore and the crushing weight of student debt. Setting aside any discussions about what exactly qualifies as a “good job”, it occurred to me this might not be a coincidence. There are a couple different historical trends that seem to be colliding here, and not in a way that I am at all comfortable with.

The first is this question of what level of education a person “needs”. Now I’m a big fan of education, and I will be the first to say that requiring universal basic literacy and numeracy has done wonders for our country. The marginal return on universal education beyond that point is something we can debate, as well as the shape it should take, but considering that debate is already happening all the way through the high school level I find it curious that there has been a not-so-subtle linguistic shift over the past few decades. It used to be that “every child should finish high school”. Then the norm became that “every child that qualifies should be able to go to college.” Next up was “every child that wants to should be able to go to college.” Now we’re moving into the realm of ‘every child should go to college.”

Notice that shift? The norm used to be a high school diploma, full stop. Now we’ve moved the goal post to “go to college”, no qualifiers. When does that become “Bachelor’s degree” or more? That brings me to my second point.

How exactly did we manage to get “every child into college”? Student loans. Not a big deal really, since the job market was always growing, opportunity was always on the rise, and that would never change. Except of course that it did change, and now we have a generation mired in debt. Nobody’s fault, really, at least that’s what the politicians tell themselves and their constituents. Certainly not the fault of programs guaranteed to extend credit to students to pursue programs regardless of their likelihood of graduation or securing gainful employment when they graduate – but I digress.

So here we find ourselves, pushing to send more kids, all the kids really, to college, while insisting there’s no way that anyone can afford to go to college. If only there was a historical example we could look back on, something remarkably similar in terms of a formerly non-compulsory, primarily private form of education that had become dominated by government influence….

And all sarcasm aside, that’s where I found myself this weekend, with a horrifying new theory and nobody to believe it. I explained it to My Not So Humble Wife, how I saw the government (probably led by the federal Department of Education, possibly with the states taking a strong hand as they do in the current public education system) taking over university education in the next 20 years and making it compulsory up through at least an Associate’s degree and far more likely through a Bachelor’s degree. After all, it’s much easier to soak taxpayers across the board directly to support the schools than to expect students to pay their own way, and then we can make sure everyone has the same “fair” chance (if you really believe the current educational system is fair, kudos on your naiveté.)

She doesn’t believe me. Neither do my friends who I mentioned it to. Maybe they all think I’ve been watching too much House of Cards. (Not true, I haven’t had a chance to stream season 2 yet). Maybe they think I’m just a nutjob libertarian. (True but irrelevant.) Maybe they just think I’m jumping at shadows. (Never; too much exertion.)

Whatever the reason, they don’t believe me, and chances are neither will you. But that’s okay. Just like the original Cassandra, I’m going to make my prediction, and the future will reveal itself in time.

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Blind to Educational Needs


For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.

So here’s the big question: is this right?

On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.

I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.

I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.

Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.

Wonder how schools would fare then?


Lessons from Night Class


As I may have mentioned before, I’m still pursuing my college degree, mostly out of masochism, but also due to a deeply rooted sense of self-hatred. Due to the fact that I have an actual job (unlike most college students and, apparently, most college graduates from the last few years) this means I have to take night classes. (Online courses? Never heard of them. I go to a school whose motto is “Where crushing innovation is tradition.”) What with the commute from work, parking, and the scheduling of such things, my classes don’t start until after 7PM and run until 10PM. This has given me the opportunity to learn some lessons that I believe would translate well into the business environment, lessons that are more implicit in nature. They won’t show up on any tests, but believe me; they’ll be more valuable than knowing who was the first Roman Emperor.

First, respect my time. This covers a lot of ground, but the first example I’ll give is the guy in class who asks a question (usually at the end of class when everyone wants to go home) that is completely irrelevant to everyone but him. For every minute you are speaking, you are wasting a minute of every single other person’s time in the class. Do that in a meeting in a business environment and you’ll be lucky if you’re politely told to “take it offline”, which is a nice way to say STFU and discuss it later. If you’re unlucky you’ll just be told STFU.

The flip side of this is the professor who keeps the class past the scheduled time. Look, I realize you think your bloviating is the most important thing in the universe, and we’re all paying just for the privilege of hearing it. Let me correct that misperception: we’re paying for the degree. Listening to you drone on is part of the price, not a benefit. In a business environment the guy who drones on like this doesn’t get invited to meetings, which is a great strategy right up until you discover you’re out of the loop, not involved in projects, and oh yeah, no longer necessary at this company and there’s the door.

Second, respect my opinions. I’m not suggesting you have to agree with everything I have to say (lord knows I think 90% of people are idiots), but at least hear me out. And don’t just sit there spending the time planning what you’re going to say when my lips stop moving, actually listen to what I’m saying. Process the information, and form a cogent response. Even more importantly, be aware of whether you are actually adding value to the conversation or if you are only speaking because you feel the need to “get your two cents in”. The guy who has to be heard on every issue is the guy who nobody wants to work with, and believe me when I say that there is nobody who is so highly skilled that they are irreplaceable if they are intolerable.

Third, respect the space. I don’t know what it is about night courses, but people come in with food and drinks all the time (too rushed to grab dinner on the way in, I guess) and then leave their trash lying there when they finish. This kind of disrespect for public space says as much about you as your appearance. Whether or not there’s janitorial staff is irrelevant; that’s the moral equivalent of saying “Mom will pick it up.” Act like an adult and clean up after yourself. There are plenty of public spaces in an office, such as meeting rooms, kitchens, and break rooms, and if you treat them the same way as you treat those classrooms, you’re going to find yourself out on the trash heap next to your trash.

It doesn’t take much, but it makes a big difference. Pay attention to these little details, show a little respect, and you’ll be a better student and a better coworker.


The Vacation of Reason


I have written before about why nobody should go to college, and yet I am myself still pursuing a college degree. I do this a little bit at a time, just a couple of classes a semester, while I work full-time and still try to produce brilliant, quality content every week for you, my discerning readers. Why do I do it? Is it arrogance? Is it hypocrisy? Is it good old-fashioned stubbornness? Now that I’ve reached the end of yet another in what is coming to seem like a never-ending parade of semesters, I have taken a moment to think about it, and the truth is: I’m not really sure.

Part of it, if I have to be honest, is that I like being in school. Heresy, I know, but for the most part I enjoy my classes. Once I get out of the general education requirements (most of which seem antiquated and bizarre, if not an outright bilking of students to support unpopular departments) I find that the material is fascinating. I am challenged in ways that I will not challenge myself, and as I grow older I have found the expansion of knowledge to be valuable for itself.

Also, and I won’t lie, there is something to be said for the idea of finally completing what I started so long ago. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, and if I can someday hang that magic piece of paper on the wall, it may not correct those mistakes, but it will at least lay some of those old ghosts to rest. It will also justify, in some small way, the vast amounts of time and money I threw down what seemed to become a bottomless pit.

Of course, like so many people of my generation, I was inculcated with the belief that you can’t succeed in life unless you have a college degree, and while I may finally have enough work experience and a strong enough professional network to nullify that once-certain claim, shaking it is as easy as a Depression-era kid shaking their need to hoard food and money. The need may be gone, but the fear is not; until I am independently wealthy I will never be secure, and perhaps not even then. After all, money comes and goes, but an education is forever (and so are student loans).

Most of all, I spent some time in deep introspection, and I realized that I can blame it all on my mother.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and you can stop. This isn’t going to be one of those typical sob stories about how my mother pushed me so hard as a child and why didn’t she love me enough. No, this is actually something quite different. Well, mostly. Mom did push me to achieve in school, but no more than any other kid. But what she really did was she went out and got her degree.

I remember when I was in high school, Mom went back to college. She worked full-time, had two kids, and she was always there for every performance (my sister was in choir, I was in theater). And yet somehow she found the time to take classes, to study, and keep going for years (it seemed like an eternity to me) until she finished her degree. She always said she was doing it for work, to get better opportunities and faster promotions, but all I remember to this day (and trust me, it’s been a long time now) is seeing her standing there in that gown, a newly-minted graduate.

It’s been a long road, and it’s still a long one left in front of me. But someday I’ll be standing there, in my gown, a newly-minted graduate. And on that day, I’ll finally be able to say “Here I am Mom. I finally caught up to you.” Even though she was behind me the whole time.


Why Not Everybody Should Go To College (And How to Do It)


I know it’s the popular thing these days to wax poetic about the value of a college degree, and at the same time complain about the cost of a college education. I’d like to step back a moment and question both of those, if for no other reason than the logical fallacy of holding both of those positions. I mean, if we value something, isn’t it supposed to cost more? Maybe I got that wrong, but then, I’m still working on my expensive college education. Which is why I’d like to offer some helpful tips to those young enough to still use them (or the parents of those young enough to still use them).

I made most of my mistakes regarding college twenty years ago. The world was a much different place then; it was much more forgiving, at least from what I can tell. Tuition was lower, admission requirements were less stringent, the Mafia couldn’t trace you by your cell phone if you didn’t make your loan payments – well, you get the idea. What was even more glorious was that we still believed the idea that a college degree was worth an extra million dollars or so in lifetime earnings, and that was in 1990 dollars (which actually meant something).

At least, that’s the line we were sold. According to this article by James Harrigan and Antony Davies, that $1,000,000 bonus only comes from the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. So I guess switching from Theater to English didn’t get me the big pay raise I was expecting. But that doesn’t mean there’s no point in getting a college degree at all, because I’ll be the first to admit, when I hire people I still look at the education line (especially when your work experience basically consists of “Babysitter – Burgerflipper – Senior Burgerflipper” – in that order). It’s just that there’s good reasons to do it, bad reasons to do it, and good and bad ways to go about it.

Before you even decide to go to college, think about what you want to do. Is it something you actually need a degree for? If you plan to be in a rock band, just go start one. I know, lots of people will pan me for this, but hear me out. Chances are you will fail, but a degree isn’t going to change that. Either you can play/sing/whatever you intend to do or you can’t. Define what success will look like in five years, give it five years, and if you aren’t succeeding, re-evaluate your options. “Success” doesn’t have to equate to “superstar”, it can equate to “living off the money we make playing as a band”. But at least you tried.

The same can be said for a lot of other fields. Even if you need some sort of technical knowledge, maybe a trade school is a better (and far less expensive) option than college. If you want to start a business, determine what knowledge you really think you need and see if you can’t get that knowledge through community college classes. Yes, I know everyone makes fun of community college; I did too, but guess what? The people who spend the last six to eight years getting an MBA don’t have a business, they have a mountain of debt.

Speaking of community college, even if you decide you do need a full Bachelor’s degree, why not start at community college and then transfer? Most schools have an arrangement with their local community college network so you can even find out exactly which classes to take to transfer directly over, and you won’t miss a step. Plan it out right and you can even pick up an Associate’s degree along the way just in case anything happens before you finish the Bachelor’s.

Here’s another tip: speaking as an employer, I really don’t care what school you went to unless it’s Harvard or Yale. Now while that’s not 100% true, it’s pretty damn close. There are a handful of schools that are just so good that they are simply known. There’s a few others that have been at the top of their field for long enough that they are known for it. If you are going to one of those schools, they are worth paying a premium price for (in the latter case, you better be getting a degree in that field or you’re throwing your money away). Anywhere else is not worth more than a public university, because no employer will give a damn, but you will have paid more anyway.

Here’s something else to think about: are you ready for school? I mean seriously ready? Because I’ve known plenty of people, myself included, who screwed around their first year or two in college and just wasted lots of money. If I had gotten a job instead I could have screwed around ’til they fired me and had a little money in my pocket. If I had just screwed around in my parents’ house doing nothing I’d at least have broken even. Going to school a year or two later is better than graduating a year or two later anyway but having two extra years of debt.

One final thought: there are jobs out there that will pay for your school. If you think you can handle not having a life for a while, there’s nothing wrong with going to school part-time and working full-time while you let someone else pick up the tab. Even if you just get a part-time job that helps cover the bills, anything to stay out from under those big bills is a help, and there’s nothing wrong with applying for every scholarship under the sun. The best money is free money.

I hope you take my advice, and I hope it does some good. If you can learn from my mistakes, at least they have some value. If you can’t learn from my mistakes, you won’t learn a thing in college.