Would “Free Tuition” Make Inequality Worse?

I’ve got a couple of work phone calls today, so Steve is taking the boys to look at a SLAC in Pennsylvania without me.  I would have liked to go, too, but it will be really nice to work without a million distractions. I can’t properly getting into the writing mode with the boys around. I’m always bracing myself for an interruption that tears me away from a thought. I hate that. I’m not the most admirable parent, when that happens.

Ronald Brownstein has an interesting article in the Atlantic today about the impact of Bernie’s — and now Hillary’s — plan for free tuition at public colleges. He quotes research from Anthony Carnevale from Georgetown.

If tuition is eliminated at public universities for families with income up to $125,000, as Clinton has proposed, more upper- middle-class students who now attend private schools may decide that Austin, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley are better bargains—and intensify competition for the limited slots available there. “What this will do is create a lot of people competing for spaces at public institutions and it will have a bumping effect,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “For minorities and low-income students it will push them down the selectivity queue, toward open admission and two-year colleges.”

I know that there are parts of the country where a family income of $125,000 is upper middle class, but it isn’t around here. It certainly isn’t around Carnevale’s Georgetown neighborhood. A $125,000 is the family income of a school teacher with ten years of experience married to an office manager. That’s not upper-middle class.

$32,000 — that’s the in-state tuition for Rutgers — is a stretch for a family making $125,000. College tuition might amount to a third of the take-home income for that family. If that kid is lucky enough to finish in four years, that B.A. will cost the family more than an entire year of salary.

A kid with an average GPA and test scores from a family like this isn’t going to Georgetown or other very selective private colleges that have a price tag of $70K. Rich kids are hardly going to be swamping the campuses of Rutgers and Delaware and pushing out more needy kids, if a plan like Hillary’s actually makes it through Congress (pretty unlikely anyway).

Now, a plan like this would be great for the lower and the middle middle class. For families that have enough resources to prepare their kids for college, but not enough to afford them. Would it help many lower income families? No. Because not enough of those kids are going to college and those that do are going to less selective colleges and many of them don’t finish school, because they weren’t adequately prepared in high school.

Brownstein does hit on a real problem in his article. The problem is that public colleges have become too competitive. While $32,000 is a lot of money, it is still cheaper than the $70K for the private colleges. With all the new amenities on these public school campuses, they are drawing kids that would have gone to the private schools. There aren’t enough seats in the classrooms for kids with average academic backgrounds. So, the traditional students of public colleges – middle class kids with B’s – are in a jam. Parents are sending them to out of state colleges with price tags in the $40-$55K range and racking up more debt.

So, there are three separate problems all of which need different solutions. Problem One is that college is unaffordable to middle class families. Problem Two is that there aren’t enough seats in public colleges in some states, like California, New York and New Jersey. Problem Three is that lower income kids are getting funneled to less selective schools and failing out.

The “free tuition” proposal solves Problem One, but doesn’t do anything about Problems Two and Three. Unlike Brownstein, I don’t think that “free tuition” will make Problems Two and Three worse.

A Bad Tour

Yesterday, Jonah and I drove an hour and a half to our state’s public college. The Arts and Science branch of the college doesn’t run tours in August, so we went on the tour of environmental science college within the school. It was all very confusing. The college has 31 sub-schools, each with its own bureaucracy and requirements spread over miles and miles of campus. It’s possible to major in biology in two or three sub-schools within the college. Why? I don’t know. Seems like a bureaucratic mess to me.

Actually, the whole school looked like a trainwreck to me. Reading between the lines of the tour, it was clear that students have very little contact with professors and that advisors weren’t really available to the students. The campus was ugly. Way ugly. It felt like the low budget city university that I used to teach at.

This school has the highest in-state tuition of any state college in the country. Where the hell is the money going? This is why you see Jersey kids at every other state college in the country. Shameful.

Jonah walked through the college horror stuck. While he didn’t pick up the cues about the problems with the faculty and administration, he got an eyeful of the exposed fluorescent lights in the dorms, the ripped carpets, and the bumbling dean who gave the tour.

He whispered, “I’m not going here.”

“Dude, you might not have a choice. You have to apply and then we’ll make decisions after we see acceptances and scholarships. Your grades are good, but you know that you could have done better. You need to apply here as a safety.”

“Why didn’t you tell me???!!!”

Um. What? He blamed me for not yelling at him enough to get straight A’s. Like this was some state secret that I was keeping from him. Teenage boys really need another year in high school to mature before we set them loose at college.

A Quick Note on A Birthday Morning

Just came back from a morning run and am feeling very virtuous, if rather sticky. I got back into running this summer determined to lose that wiggle and jiggle on my hips. I might even be ready for a 5K in a couple of weeks.

I’m gearing up for a busy fall. I just added two new side gigs to my work load, on top of the  Atlantic responsibilities. I am still volunteering a lot of time to the disabled community in town. And I’m determined to keep running through all that.

To get all that done, I’ve had to streamline my life. I have way too many interests and hobbies. I belong to too many organizations, too many cliques. I feel responsible for too many people. I’m slowly honing things down. Concentrating on fewer things, but doing a better job with those few things.

So, this summer I’ve been purging the office and basement of the excessive side activities. All the tubes of half-used oil paints and stretched canvases in the basement are in a black bag for the garbage man. I’m hiring people to paint the laundry room, rather than spending three days doing the job myself. I’ve let the garden get weedy. I’m not spending three hours cooking complicated meals. I’m not taking pictures of home improvement projects.

I would like to spend more time traveling and writing about it. We really did have an excellent adventure with the kids this summer. The four of us were ready to keep going. Going up to Montreal, Nova Scotia, and beyond. That’s the goal. The goal is to keep going.

Alright, got an interview for an Atlantic article at 9 and lunch with family at an Indian restaurant at 12. We visited a rather terrible college yesterday and I want to blog about it. So, I’ll be back later this afternoon.

5 Days, 5 Colleges, 5 States (Part 4)

Getting your kid ready for college is very emotional. College is like the finish line for parenting. Your job is done. When your life has revolved around soccer games and the school calendar for years, it’s a major change. I mean the change will be good in some ways. I mean, fuck the school calendar. I’m sick of it. But it did give us some organization to life.

And, of course, we’ll miss the kid, too. He’ll be gone for 28 weeks out of the year. He’ll be absent from the dinner table. I won’t stumble into him sleeping on the sofa in the morning after a late-night, video game battle. Jonah’s been my sidekick for so long that it will be very strange to have him gone.

I’m also pretty sure that this will be our last time around at the college tours. We took Ian to Yale for an evaluation last January. Ian’s a very smart guy. His lowest IQ scores were in the average range. The subtests in nonverbal areas put him in the superior range. His pattern recognition scores were in the 97th percentile. But Yale also told us that his social-emotional intelligence and his ability to hold conversations were very low. Probably too low for independent living.

Sometimes, we get huge strides of improvement. Like after this trip with all the attention and activity, Ian was talking normally. Honestly, you wouldn’t even guess that he’s autistic. But that level of attention and activity is hard to maintain in real life. Schools refuse to do that. So, then he slips back again.

Ian’s high and low problem means that he doesn’t fit into special ed classes very well, but he also can’t handle a large traditional classroom. So, that’s why I spent most of the spring looking for a new school for him. We picked something. I hope it works out.

Colleges are starting to create programs for kids like Ian. The public schools are responsible for him until he’s 21. Maybe in seven years, there will be more college opportunities. But even so, I suspect that college isn’t the right thing for Ian. He needs to go straight into a computer training class and go to work immediately at some place where they’re cool about a little weirdness. Those programs don’t really exist yet. But in seven years, maybe.

(more later.)

5 Days, 5 Colleges, 5 States (Part 3)

I’ve been trying to get Jonah to enjoy reading fiction. “I don’t care what you read. Just read. How about the new Harry Potter? It doesn’t have to be great literature. It can be anything. I want you to get so absorbed in a book that you don’t even notice that you’ve turned a hundred pages or that you missed lunch or that 12 friends have sent you texts.”

I asked him what his favorite book from his English class was. He said Huckleberry Finn. Well, Huckleberry Finn is essentially a road trip book, I told him — a traveler goes to different towns, meets crazy, random people, gets briefly caught up in their craziness, maybe dodges some dangers, and then moves on, because the traveler is somehow freed from the usual responsibilities that chains the rest of us down to one place. The first roadtrip book was The Odyssey. And then there’s a long and glorious tradition of road trips books, since then and I suggested a few. He sighed and rolled his eyes and said that they all sounded boring.

We had our own little roadtrip last week. Visiting these gleaming cities of college campuses. Of course, we didn’t have to deal with one-eyed Cyclops or pissed off mobs demanding revenge for sideshow scams. We did have to deal with the call of the Sirens though, which is going to rob us blind as we polish off our oldest son for the modern job market.

I’ve pulled out my notebook this morning and have a list of more fun stuff offered at the schools that we visited: Zumba classes, a Fetty Wop concert (I guess he hit all the schools on our list this spring), speeches by Bill and Hill, Bernie, and Janet Yellin, tutoring, farm to table salad bar, brick oven pizza, classes on doing laundry, free movies every night, busses.

So, how did we survive all those boring tours? In 95 degree heat? That lasted two hours? How did we drag around a 14-year old with slight autism? Pokemon Go, baby. It saved the day. The campuses were loaded with Pokemon and pokeballs and eggs and silliness. And we also bookended the visits with lots of fun stuff, like tours of the Ben and Jerry’s factory, swims in the hotel pools, lobster rolls and microbrew. In the evening, we watched the DNC until late. It was a grand adventure.

The tours didn’t bother me too much, because they gave me lots of ammo for the Atlantic (and other venues) this fall.

(Gotta drive Jonah to his track practice and then hit the gym myself. I’ll finish off this saga later this afternoon.)

5 Days, 5 Colleges, 5 States (Part 2)

After our detour into the subculture of People Who Live On Boats, we braced ourselves for a rigorous schedule of tours, hotels, and states. The plan had been meticulously arranged weeks ago with hotel reservations, driving plans, and college reservations. An itinerary was typed out with scribbled tips in the margins about restaurants and bars from friends. (Thanks all!)

By limiting this search to the big public schools in nearby states — URI, UConn, UMass, UNH, and UVM — we compared apples to apples. And since both Steve and I attended similar public colleges as undergraduates and both taught at public colleges, we thought we could add our own apples to the comparison. Well, our apples didn’t count – either the apples were from too long ago or weren’t from flagship public colleges. We were rather shocked at what we found.

Even URI with its sagging window air conditioners in the administration building, was a damn sight more impressive than we expected. All of the schools were in the midst of major construction projects. There were cranes and tractors and scaffolding everywhere. New dorms at UVM! New science building at URI! New everything at UConn!

Ian, who was an absolute champ on these two hours tours in the 95 degree heat, observed that these schools were cities. And he was right. Weird, little cities of young, beautiful people. No old, no babies, no sick, no disabled. Just 30,000 cheerful, clean-cut, middle class kids with endless enthusiasm for sustainable water bottles and semesters abroad. They were identical even if they were of different races.

And like real cities, these universities provide services for their citizens, but way beyond the range of what any real city does. It’s a real city on hormones, cocaine, and a pack of unfiltered Camels. The tour guides explained that their schools provide everything from parking spaces to free laundry to counseling to tutoring to 24 hours of food to career counseling.  Oh and they also teach the kids stuff, too.

So, if you figure that these universities manage nearly 50,000 students and staff, it’s rather a remarkable administrative feat. They work with an efficiency of Disney Land.

We didn’t see the rockwalls or the lazy rivers that I’ve heard tell about, but we did see very impressive exercise buildings with hundreds of treadmills. One tour guide gave us the list of all the free exercise classes — yoga, bro-ga for the guys, strength training, and dance. There were intramurals, club sports, varsity. UConn had national basketball champs. UVM had an enormous ski club with free lift tickets at the nearby mountains.

Jonah was probably most impressed with UConn and UVM for both real and superficial reasons. He just fell in love with the campuses. UConn was spotless. We watched a video about UVM in its brand new visitor center with exposed pine wood rafters in Adirondack style. The campus in on a green hill overlooking Lake Champlain and the town of Burlington. We wanted him to look past the buildings and get at the substance, but it was tough. UVM was extremely beautiful.

The kid loves plants, and we saw impressive fields and greenhouses at those schools. The tour guides at UConn and UVM just happened to know about that stuff and talked about it a lot on the tours. But he also likes architecture and German. All the schools were big enough, so he could take a range of classes his freshman year until he was ready to narrow down.

We made a point, just to be annoying, to ask the tour guides at all five schools about the percentage of adjunct professors there. (None knew that answer.)

I asked one of the tour guides who have all blended together in my head into one perky composite face what were the most commonly asked questions on the tours. She said, it was about parking and food.

The price for these schools as an out-of-state student is frightening — $40K to $55K. We’ve got the NJ state college tours coming up later in August, but even in-state here is expensive. It’s $30K. But after seeing these schools, I can see why parents go into so much debt to send their kids to these places. They were wonderful. I wanted to go back to college. I’ve always liked colleges. That’s why I ended up in grad school until I was 34. With all these opportunities, both Steve and I were drooling. We wanted it, too. We bellied up to the Kool-Aid bar and drank deeply.

One perk that was common to all these schools? Puppy petting hours. That is a bit weird.

(More tomorrow)