An Interview with NPR

Last Friday, I got an e-mail from a producer at NPR asking me if I would like to talk to Michel Martin on NPR's "Tell Me More" to discuss my recent article about student loan debt in the Atlantic. Within an hour, after a series of e-mails and phone calls were exchanged, I was booked to go to the studios in New York City and had arranged for my mom to meet the school buses on Monday afternoon. 

I went into serious neurotic mode. It doesn't take me much to go there. I can make ordering ice-cream in Ben and Jerry's stressful. But this was an interview with a radio station that is on my speed dial on the car radio! Full on meltdown! 

I spent the weekend trying to psych out every question that Michel might ask. I made crib sheets of statistics. I made my brother and Steve ask me tough questions. At the same time, I kept telling myself to calm down, because I have blown other opportunities in the past by being over prepared and defensive. 

On Monday, I drove into midtown. NPR's NYC studios are located just two buildings down from where I went to grad school. I passed by Bryant Park where I spend many afternoons eating lunch with friends. I was going into the studios to talk about students making risky educational decisions and racking up excessive debt and that is exactly what I did just two buildings away. Irony noted. 

Because I'm insane, I showed up at the studios 40 minutes early. One of the hippy minions who works at the studio let me into the office and showed me to a sofa where I could read over my notes and glug water like Paul Ryan in a debate. 

I watched the soft spoken, jean-wearing, tote bag toting minions quietly working in cubicles. Maybe I could get a job here. 

At 2:00, the sound engineer led me into a booth and showed me how to talk into the microphone. I unstapled my notes and spread them out in front of me like a fan. You can't shuffle papers when you're on the radio. He explained that I could look down at my notes, but not move my head. He hooked up with the main station in Washington and we waited for Michel to show up. We chatted about his kids and their college decisions. 

Finally, Michel arrived in the DC studios and we said a quick hello and then the interview was on. 

Michel asked me how I became interested in the topic. I gave one answer. She asked another question and I thought of a better way of answering the first question. I tried to go back to the first question and she shut me down immediately. No nonsense from the interviewee. Ok. Got it. 

She didn't ask the questions that I had expected. The title of the article, which wasn't written by me, tripped me up a bit.

Also, she had interviewed a woman on a parenting show a few weeks ago who told her that faculty at UVA told her kid that college was just about fun and not studying. She wanted me to say that professors weren't helping kids and were instead advising kids to not care about their studies. It took me until the end of the interview to figure out where her questions were leading. 

Here's the interview

I can't listen to it, because I can't listen to my own voice on an answering machine. Who is that weirdo? Not me, certainly. 

It was an excellent learning experience. I'm glad I did it. After the interview was over, Michel and I talked for another five minutes about the topic. She was extremely smart, and we shared the exact same concerns about college kids. It's always a pleasure to talk to someone who is on your wave length. 

I came home to deal with homework and dinner prep and other news that dwarfed my day. 

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17 thoughts on “An Interview with NPR

  1. Yes, your voice is very nice. Not to high, neutral accent, modulated when necessary (like when you call Lisa a kid).
    I think your insight that she was trying to guide you towards her thesis (or at least her thesis for this piece, i.e. faculty culpability).
    I didn’t hear where she “shut you down.”
    You’re good at this. You got your points in even when the moderator was pushing you in different directions. You should listen to yourself — I suspect this is another really good venue to amplify the directions you’re taking now. It isn’t for everyone (if their voices sound bad, or if they can’t think fast enough, or if they get flustered in real time).

  2. I went over to NPR and listened to your interview and was very impressed—you sounded great and made good points about some of the choices student’s face today.
    And I liked your blog post about the process even more — I’m fascinated about how people do new things–even if (especially if) they are a bit “neurotic” about it.

  3. I definitely caught the point where the ‘fix was in’, so to speak, and you did a good job deflecting.
    Though I hope I didn’t say that *no one* has an issue with debt here. It’s just a different kind of issue in both magnitude and character to the students that really concern you–the students who are paying for seven or eight years with an unclear view of what they’re trying to accomplish and where the credential they’re earning may have limited general value or be tightly tied to a relatively low-paying profession. If nothing else, the private selectives get almost all their students out the door in four years because of the relatively lavish attention from advisors and faculty.

  4. Tim, if I can ignore the debate rules (for the presidents) and ask a direct question — do you know what the average net cost for a Swarthmore student whose family makes <30K/year is? (off the top of your head).
    Anyone else? a college? and a guess?
    I've been spending time at the financial aid forum at College Confidential (and the College Navigator site) and am getting a bit of a handle on what everyone finds so perplexing.
    I think the complexity of the system is as much to blame as the advice offered by anyone (parents, high school counselors, professors/faculty advisers). Given the role of government dollars (in direct aid and loans) and the various ways colleges try to maximize their resources for different goals the system is more complex than any government benefits program (and just as costly to the individual). I continue to discover new things and I know a lot.

  5. We have a formula, bj, but honestly I don’t know its details, except that it is enforced with some degree of inflexible precision by our financial aid office, with the aim of fairness. I should know more, but that’s the point I raised with Laura–there’s a sense in which faculty are encouraged to advise students without knowing anything about their family income or status so that there’s no prompting of a class bias. I can tell you almost for certain though that at family income under 30k a year the net cost would be zero or damn close to it, at least as far as tuition and room & board go. My intuition is that tuition would be written off above that, in fact, though how high I don’t know. The complexity is a real problem, though–there is tremendous information asymmetry here on both sides (e.g., higher ed institutions make their formulas opaque and families often try to make their full financial picture fudgeable).
    I have heard our financial aid office say that they expect that some sacrifice is important for every family that can make sacrifices–that they feel higher education is a major investment like a house etc.–that families shouldn’t expect to be able to do everything they want and then some. But there are a lot of moving parts that I know they do consider–divorces, dependents including elder care situations, employment history, debt loads, how many kids you have in college and so on.
    If you want a sense of how we all get bitten in the ass by some of the same complexity, well, we get a tuition benefit that’s carefully calibrated to stay under the IRS’ guideline for supplemental (and thus taxable) income. Which means it isn’t all that much. But talking to friends of mine who have a college-age kid at one of Swarthmore’s peer institutions, they found that at their combined salaries, they were still under the “must pay full tuition income”–but that the college their kid was going to, the financial aid office knew perfectly well about the tuition benefit and calculated it into their income. At that level, they actually had to pay more out of pocket. So they suggested, “What if we don’t accept the benefit? Then we pay less!” The financial aid office at our peer institution said, “You can’t decline it–we know you’re eligible for it, so you have to take it, and because you have to take it, you have to pay us more than if you didn’t get the benefit.”

  6. I’m a recent-ish Swat grad, and I had friends in the <$30,000 who not only received free tuition & room and board and but also a semesterly stipend to buy books and other incidentals. My family made considerably more than that, and I received a need-based almost full tuition scholarship, leaving only room and board and general life stuff (which was *very* cheap, since everything on campus is free. I think some months I spent no money except on books, since meals were all provided for on the meal plan). Swarthmore also factors in all expenses when calculating costs of attendance, including travel, books, and a miscellaneous fund. This was before the 'automatic grant instead of loan' policy, so it might be more generous today. I know there were people who were less happy with their financial aid or who had complicating factors, but I was not surprised when I saw Swarthmore voted the most generous school with financial aid.

  7. What in human neurology makes the sound of one’s own voice so repellent? It seems to be universal.
    Laura, great interview and great radio voice, you’ll have to take our word for it.
    I’m finding enormous variation in what my youngest’s target schools offer families in (roughly) our situation (we’ve had two early reads and I’ve been quizzing parents of kids a year older than mine).

  8. Artemisia — have you checked out the net price calculators for your schools. I hear they’re still a work in progress and fail for more complicated situations, and can’t take into account specialness like the Scenario Timothy Burke outlines. But it’s information.
    If you plug in 30K income, with everything else (assets, etc) zero, Swarthmore’s net price estimator does give a loan free award that covers everything (except a reasonable work study component).
    I’m looking forward to seeing how accurate those calculators are (with the caveat that they can on,y be as good as the data entered).

  9. Good interview. It added to the article in the Atlantic and gave me a better idea of where you were coming from. I do have a question that I hope someone can answer. When I went to college, we had the financial aid office (where we signed our lives away) and we had academic advisors (who helped plan out course of study and year by year plans so that you could see a path to graduation (I think we had 2-3 mandatory meetings a year with our academic advisor) and then I had faculty advisors who actually were those professors within my courses of study.
    Is your position that the professors who teach your classes should also be telling you how to organize your finances or course plan? Is my experience out of the ordinary? My academic advisor was extremely helpful in guiding me through graduation on time…even after having taken a quarter off due to personal issues (thank goodness for AP and college course credits rom high school). She was also the person I had to speak with (and have sign off permission on) when I wanted to work more than the prescribed 15 hours a week via work study through the University. I could have worked off campus without her approval but to get more hours on campus I needed her sign off.
    But I never even thought of talking to my actual course professors about these kinds of issues. I used office hours a ton, but most of my time was spent talking about the in and out of the course material – not how I was paying for it.
    Do most colleges and universities not have those three distinct areas (financial aid office, academic advisory services, and then true professors)? Are those services intermingled on many campuses? I guess I just don’t understand what is actually happening on campuses and therefor it is hard to know what should be happening (remedy wise).

  10. Just a quick comment about the university the mom talked about in her previous interview (i work there now, sssh, don’t tell anyone ;). My experience so far with the students is quite the opposite. they’re extremely busy with work and most say that they have very little free time and study all the time. I have the impression that what happened to her is not very representative of this particular institution.

  11. Thanks all for the positive feedback. Really appreciate it, since I really didn’t listen to the interview.
    Yeah, Lillian. I’m sure that you’re totally right. The mom of the UVA student might have taken something that a staff person said and thought that it was a faculty person. My brother is a UVA alum and it has a work hard/play hard culture. I think that there are many colleges that are competing to provide a lifestyle for kids with tricked out dorms and a party atmosphere, but I don’t think that’s typical of UVA.
    re: Swarthmore. I talked to another faculty member there, in addition to Tim, and he confirmed that student debt wasn’t a huge problem at that school. Swarthmore, like other elite colleges like Williams, have exceptional 4 year graduation rates. It’s in the 90%. I think that there’s a big correlation between schools that have a hard time getting kids to graduate on time and schools that have kids w/mucho debt. I haven’t crunched the numbers yet, but I might do it.

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