Slavery, boxing, & other things I’m reading (and watching) this week

"So, what'll it be...binge watching, binge eating or both?"Some random thoughts about a couple novels, Foyle’s War, and the AHCA.

  1. I finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad over the weekend. Whitehead’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year, is both compelling and uneven. In Whitehead’s narrative, the underground railroad is, literally, a railroad running underground, a kind of abolitionists subway that carries slaves up and down the east coast. Station agents are citizens and abolitionists who see slavery as the abomination that it was. The folks risk live and livelihood helping slaves escape into the dark tunnels where old engines pull broken down rail cars through the darkness. Colson, at his best, shows us the emotional toil slavery exacts. While many novels about slavery show us a sliver of hope, I like that Colson paints us a picture of the human soul in collapse. Even the moments on a plantation that might offer a respite from the degradation of slavery contain the dark anger and despair of life as a slave in America. Cora, Colson’s primary character, can’t relax or experience those momentary stays we all need from the confusion of daily life. Colson keeps that cloud of hopelessness hovering over her head throughout the novel. But Colson also falls into what we might call the Richard Wright trap. I’m in no way disparaging Wright’s masterpiece Native Son. His novel was a product of its place and time and stands as an important 20th Century novel that captures the abject despair of being black in America. Wright, though (as virtually every critic notes), gets a tad bit preachy in the last third of the novel. In defense of Wright, he was writing to an audience largely ignorant of the plight of Bigger Thomas, and Wright was going to by God make sure his readers didn’t miss the larger point about inequality and race. Colson’s novel isn’t quite as preachy, but I think he also loses some faith in his audience once Cora lands in Indiana at the Valentine farm. He’s done so well letting despair linger right under the surface of Cora’s life and then characters that might have had some depth get a little to caricatured for my tastes. More importantly, Colson’s strengths are bringing the pain of slavery to life. Turning the Underground Railroad into a real thing and not a metaphor fits with that focus on the real. At the risk of spoiling anything, the “Ghost Station” Cora finds in Indiana moves us away from the solid actuality of the first 2/3rds of the novel and into some metaphorical, allegorical mysterious space that we haven’t occupied anywhere else in the novel. Don’t get me wrong. Whitehead is a fine writer and Cora’s story is compelling and interesting. Slavery, Colson clearly shows, rots the soul of everyone involved, fueling a hatred that dehumanizes owner and slave. In a larger sense, Colson’s novel is an important reminder about an ugly and shameful part of our past that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore.
  2. I’m about halfway through FX Toole‘s Pound for Pound. If you don’t know Toole, he’s really Jerry Boyd, a guy who didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until he was about 70. The film Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Hilary Swank, was based on a story in his collection Rope Burns. Toole didn’t survive to see the movie or Pound for Pound published and, as others have noted, Toole’s story is probably as compelling as his fiction. In point of fact, Pound for Pound was about a 900 page manuscript edited into a novel, and I’m always a little skeptical about authorship and quality in such cases. Toole spent his life as a cut-man and trainer. I’m not being entirely critical when I say his fiction reads like it. When you add in the edited nature of the manuscript, the writing can get clunky. However, if you like boxing and all the metaphors associated with the sport, you’ll probably like Toole’s work. Boxing, in Toole’s world, provides discipline and order to the chaotic world of the men in his works. There’s a reason that so many inner-city churches and youth organizations start boxing clubs to try and provide an outlet to the chaos of the poverty and tragedy of the streets. For Toole, this discipline is transcendent not in victory but in the beauty of a punch thrown correctly. At his best, Toole shows us a character’s joy when his breathing and footwork coincides with a left hook that strikes with devastating power. Men in the novel who lack discipline cheat, fix fights, and succumb to addiction. Toole’s no Hemingway, but his novel offers an insight into the allure of boxing not as an outlet for violence but as a place of beauty and the artistic possibilities when parts of an action come together as a whole.
  3. My wife and I are slowly but surely getting hooked on Foyle’s War. Set in World War 2, the series follows Christopher Foyle as he solves various crimes. There aren’t many guns, we don’t see any blood and guts, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen faster chases watching two 3 year olds on tricycles. In fact, the show is about as sexy watching a sunset on a cloudy day. And yet every night about 8:00, we settle in and watch Michael Kitchen (he plays Foyle) walk around in his 1940’s wool suit and slowly unravel whatever mystery he’s faced with this week. Simply put, and I know it makes me sound old, the acting in the show is stunningly good. The story lines unfold like a well-written short story with characters that develop slowly in each 90 minute episode. Show recommendations are always dicey things because we all think our tastes in entertainment are better than anyone else’s, and we’re shocked (flabbergasted even) that people can’t appreciate the humor or joy we find in movies or tv. (Everyone loves Strange Brew, right?) If you’re sitting around some night surfing through Netflix, give Foyle’s War a shot. If you’ve got good taste, you’ll like it. If not, keep your recommendations to yourself. We don’t need any reminders that our taste in television can be odd.
  4. The American Health Care Act passed the House this week. I haven’t read it, but neither did some of the House members who voted for or against the dang thing. My excuse is that I’m not paid to read the bill. I’ll say what I’ve said before on this blog–the issue isn’t insurance: it’s the cost of medical care. At some point, we need to stop this charade and either move to a totally free market health care system (where lots of people go without insurance and overwhelm emergency rooms driving up our local costs) or move a single payer system that creates a safety net for all of us. We can’t keep patching this mess up with bailing wire and duct tape. Most disappointing to me is that Republicans have had seven years to craft legislation and this bill seems to be the best they could do. Remember students–this is what happens when you procrastinate and wait until the last minute to finish your assignment.
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I don’t think that word means what you think it means

inconceivable

From the Princess Bride–one of the great movies of all time

In the world of higher education, twitter has been abuzz the last few days. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released its 51st annual “American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016” survey. The survey of over 130,000 college freshman provides “data on incoming college students’ background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college.” For those of us tasked with understanding how to help students persist toward a degree, the report provides both a valuable snapshot in time and an important way to measure consistency over time.

The report is chock full of great data, but the big story engaging news agencies is the apparent political “polarization” of incoming first year students. Only about 42 percent of students self-identify as middle of the road. According to the report, a higher percentage of female students self-identify as far left and more male students self-identify as far right. Visualize much hand ringing and angst as people envision a giant schism between the genders.

Except maybe not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we probably need to take a deep breath and not hit the panic button just yet. As much as I value the information in the HERI survey, we are reading self-reported survey data gathered from 17-18 year old incoming college students who have grown up in a world where the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are largely undefined, confused, and have become divisive and synonymous with certain hot button social issues.

Heck, I’m not even sure our two major political parties could adequately define those two terms anymore. Are all Republicans conservative? Are all Democrats liberals? And where in the world does President Trump fall on the political spectrum?

More importantly for the survey data, what exactly does conservative or liberal political views mean to an 19 year old recent high school graduate? If not raising taxes on the wealthy is a conservative issue, the HERI report notes that 73.1 % of female students and 67.7 % of male students think we should raise taxes on that cohort. If dealing with climate change is a liberal issue, 82.4 % of female students and 77.6 % of male students want federal policy to address climate change.

Of course, while both cohorts want the rich to pay more in taxes (damn liberal kids), only 36.7% (female) and 39.5 % (male) want us to raise taxes to reduce the deficit (stingy conservative brats).

Unless you’re wealthy. of course. Then we’ll raise your taxes. But only if it reduces the deficit. (Dang wishy washy teenagers.)

Therein, I think, lies the problem with self-reported data from incoming college students. Understand that I’m not doubting the sincerity or intellectual ability of 17 and 18 year olds. I am, though, casting some doubt about their understanding of complex political terms.

Words like liberal and conservative are far more difficult to define than we might pretend. In my first year composition classes, I used to begin our semester by asking students to identify their place on the political spectrum. As a public regional university in west Texas, a not surprising number of my students self-identified as Republican or conservative. In their short essay, they had to tell me why that was their political affiliation. Part two of the assignment required that students take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

What we found was that defining political ideology is a little more complicated than picking left versus right. Most of my students, in fact, are for smaller government until they want the government to pay for a bigger chunk of their tuition bill. Many of my conservative students were shocked that their liberal, deer hunting classmates want to protect the 2nd Amendment. My liberal students were surprised the conservative students wanted the government to leave homosexuals alone. And just about everyone is ready for legal marijuana. (That might not be very surprising. Stoners!)

The point, I tell my students, isn’t to turn you into a bunch of liberal, pinko communists or far right fascists. Language and words matter. Calling yourself something stakes a claim and creates identity–something that is a little more important than bubbling in a circle on a survey or blindly following your Uncle Frank’s Facebook rants. It takes more than a 140 characters to understand and adopt a political view.

As I read the reactions to the HERI report, I can’t help but think that knowing the political “polarization” of incoming freshman is about as useful as knowing how elementary school students feel about growing political unrest in southeast Asia. It’s conceivable that we need to be sure they actually know what the terms mean before we ask them to place themselves in one camp or the other.

The problem, of course, isn’t that HERI asked the question. Snapshots in time are important and useful but emphasizing how polarized we seem to be only reinforces people’s polarized ideas.

And let’s face it: the last thing we need is to focus on more ways we can’t communicate or agree on things in this world.

 

 

 

The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.

 

 

 

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Listen to Country Music and other random thoughts today

Some days the easiest blog is one that requires the least amount of thinking.

  1. Michael J. Petrilli over at Education Next writes in “Common Confusion” about the disconnect in parent’s ideas beliefs about their children’s academic performance and the reality of college-readiness. He argues that we must do a better job of providing realistic and honest feedback about academic performance. Too often, students go through school being told they are doing fine by teachers and getting good grades on report cards. While standardized tests could provide a wake-up call, too many parents dismiss those reports as unfair, arguing little Johnny isn’t a good test taker. Even more important, there’s no real information those mandated tests that tie the score to long-term academic performance, even though those scores often provide us with a pretty solid sense about how a student will do in the future. I can’t really argue with Petrilli’s idea that we need to be more open and honest about the gap between college aspirations and college readiness. We can start by reminding everyone, parents included, that a C equals average and average doesn’t equal failure. Most of us have strengths and most of us have some areas where we’re average. Being okay isn’t the end of the world. For most teachers, though, handing out Cs (or Ds and Fs) often leads to angry phone calls from parents that are often not worth the hassle of handing out failing grades. What I do like about Petrilli’s argument is the idea that defining the gap between college aspirations and college readiness might (and that’s a big might) spur parents to push for resources that will help unprepared students close the gap. However, I think Petrilli falls into the same trap that too many of us slide into, though, by ignoring that no matter what we do every child doesn’t need to go to college. Perhaps, instead of only identifying the gap between college aspirations and college readiness we should also use those standardized tests to reshape some aspirations and encourage kids from an early age to focus on skilled trades, military, or entrepreneurial opportunities that don’t need a college degree.
  2.  For a mere $425, you can buy jeans caked in fake dirt from Nordstrom’s. At the risk of sounding reductionist and immature, that’s the dumbest damn thing I’ve heard all day (and I work with college freshman). For my money (or someone else’s because I like to get my jeans dirty the old fashioned way), this is a bit like buying a Cadillac truck. If you want a truck, buy something you’re going to use. What’s next, a hammer pre-nicked, sold with fake bruised thumbnails and a list of cuss words to read in public? Of course, the jokes probably on all of us folks giving Nordstrom’s free publicity.
  3. Phillip Levine’s “Only a Misunderstanding of What College Really Costs Could Have Produced New York’s Flawed Plan for Free Tuition” is so much cleaner than my blog from the other day about the flaws in free tuition. The reality is that while college is expensive, actual tuition costs at many universities across the country aren’t nearly as exorbitant as most people think. Like the gap between college aspiration and college readiness, we have a perception gap for college students. College isn’t necessarily a place to go party, live on your own for 4 years, and rack up college debt. If you can’t afford $425 jeans with fake caked mud, don’t buy them. If you can’t afford $48,000 a year in tuition, pick a different college, live at home, and work part time to pay your bills. I understand the desire to move off, live on your own, and party with your dorm mates. Those are all valuable experiences, but flying to Paris and staying in a 5-star hotel is a valuable experience, too. Unfortunately, not all of us can afford such extravagance. Pick a college within your means (like Angelo State!). You’ll get a great education at an affordable price that ends with a college degree. Isn’t the degree the point anyway?
  4. Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to listen to Country Music, unless you want them to learn all about how much fun it is to smoke pot. You read it right: Rock and roll might want your kids to rebel and fight the man, but Willie wants them to get rolled and stoned. Far be it from me to point out the contradictory nature of a genre that pretends to focus on family values and patriotic fervor (unless your an all woman band who offers political commentary). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since so much of contemporary country music is really pop-light anyway. Either way, mom and dad, dust off those Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Brahms albums. Those guys might have been radical, but at least they didn’t ruin any songs with bad lyrics or drug-references.

If You Learn, You Earn

CollegeMany states, in response to a demand for more college graduates at a lower cost, are pushing, proposing, and implementing free tuition for students in their states. The state of New York entered the fray recently, promising free tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. The most notable caveat to their plan is a requirement that anyone who gets that tuition break has to work in New York for a certain amount of time or pay back the benefit: nothing like a little 21st century indentured servitude to remind us how difficult economic mobility is this day and age.

I’m not going to pretend that free college tuition doesn’t have it’s appeal. As a college professor and dean, I recognize and believe in the value of higher education, and I’d have to be obtuse not to see that rising costs are problematic for students and parents. In fact, various surveys tell us that incoming college students and their parents see finances as the biggest impediment to earning a degree. Declining federal and state aid forces students to choose between working more hours or accepting student loans. Worse yet, federal financial aid formulas (FAFSA) that determine non-loan aid amounts and eligibility are often ridiculously out of touch with the actual reality of most family’s pocket books.

Realistically, we can’t, despite what too many politicians argue, create efficiencies that significantly reduce the cost of higher education. Certainly, we could eliminate all college sports, multi-cultural centers, weight rooms, climbing walls, Tutor Centers, and other “wasteful” amenities to offer a bare bones educational opportunity. Doing so would save students money, but at the risk of stating the obvious, people’s loyalty to the University of Michigan, Texas A&M, and other major universities isn’t because of their English departments. 102,000 people don’t show up to cheer a great performance in the physics lab. The reality is that students often choose which schools to attend based on the very things that are inefficient and costly. I’ll also remind everyone that there are hundreds of colleges that aren’t UT, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. The rest of us are scraping by, scrimping and saving, with faculty and staff regularly working overloads. Not many of us are making six-figures and working 30 hours a week. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certain any organization can find ways to cut costs, but there’s not as much fat at most universities as people imagine.

It’s also worth noting that there already exist low-cost educational opportunities. Students can attend community colleges for two years and then chose four-year universities with lower costs. Some might even choose an online university like Western Governor’s University, although last time I checked WGU’s tuition and fees are not that radically different from tuition and fees and many public, regional universities. Technology doesn’t necessarily equal lower costs. Students who are trying to pinch pennies can live at home, assuming, of course, that there is a college within driving distance of their home.

Free-tuition, though, isn’t the solution. At the risk of stating the obvious and insulting anyone’s intelligence, “free” tuition isn’t really free. Much like all those free-use parks in towns across America, someone is picking up the tab. We just aren’t charging you every time you go down the slide.

While I don’t necessarily prescribe to the idea that you get what you pay for, I do think that paying for things adds value. As importantly, earning a degree or certificate benefits both the state and the individual. Paying for college is an investment and last time I checked no one was voluntarily dumping money in my 403B retirement account, giving me free housing, or picking up the tab for lunch. Because they cost me, they have value above. More importantly, I have to work to earn those things.

The first step to our college cost problem, though, has nothing to do with students. We must, as some point, return funding levels from federal and state governments to their 1980 levels. When I went off to college in 1987, government funding for higher ed equaled around 80%. Students had some skin in the game, but anteing up wasn’t cost prohibitive. Various figures and agencies tell us that for every dollar we invest in education, we get a $5.00 return. I’m no financial analyst, but long term a five to one return seems pretty solid.

Notably, though, the return on that investment only occurs if students graduate from college, though. Regardless of degree, college graduates have a lower unemployment rate and have higher lifetime earnings.

Since, from the state’s perspective, graduation is the end game, I’d like to see us develop a funding model that reflects and rewards students as they get closer to graduation. In some ways, I think we can follow the way many athletic programs award scholarships. The lowest scholarship amounts occur the first two years. As you show you can perform, we start raising your funding and lowering your bill. After all, we only get a return on our investment if you actually graduate. Additionally, as courses get more difficult, labs longer, hours in the library basement researching esoteric and difficult ideas increase, students need more time working on college than flipping burgers. Essentially, we’re going to increase your up front cost, but we’re also going to reward you for performance and reduce your back end costs once you prove you will be successful. I realize some students might have to delay the start of college to earn a little money or they might have to work their first two semesters, but for my money completion is more important than easy access.

Any scholarship and grant model has to be predicated on elected officials funding higher education at acceptable levels, recognizing that students who graduate with degrees (or certifications demonstrating mastery of skills that help them get employed) are beneficial to the larger social good. If we continue to defund higher education, we’ll see higher student loan debt and continue with stagnant graduate rates. In today’s dollars, funding from the feds and the states hovers around 35%, pushing the other 65% on to the backs of students and their parents. Let’s start by flipping those numbers, charging students tuition their first two years and then slowing phasing out their costs the closer they get to graduation. We can reward those who demonstrate the ability to learn with the potential to earn.

At that point, I suspect we can let those New Yorkers move anywhere they want. Heck, we’ll even let them move down here to Texas. Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

Random Thoughts about Things I Read Today

I was going to spend today writing about dual credit, but I got bored and spent my time reading various articles online.

  1. Justin Peters gives the Bill O’Reilly story the “no-spin” explanation it deserves in “The All-Spin Zone: Bill O’Reilly’s long career of transforming B.S. into “common Read Tweetssense.” Like so many other things lately, too many of us underestimate the appeal of Fox News and it’s television hosts, Peters says. O’Reilly speaks to an aged viewership who appreciates strong opinions and paternalistic “straight talk:” Correctness is less important than certainty and, Peters argues, gives rise to Trump’s successful presidential election. I agree. As the world gets more complex, people want to believe the solutions are simple and easy. “Elites” like Obama and Clinton bloviated, spun, and obfuscated. O’Reilly, for his faithful viewers, cut through all that BS for common sense solutions. Watching O’Reilly, for me, was always a bit like watching a talking WWE episode, but I’m thankful for O’Reilly’s career because he gave us the Colbert Report.   Interestingly, commentators like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have an out-sized influence based on the actual number of viewers and listeners. (FYI–if you don’t follow ratings, the NBC Nightly News has about 10 million viewers a day.) Any post about O’Reilly also needs a shout-out to the advertisers who pulled their ads as a way to stop supporting a many accused of such abusive behavior. Of course, I’m sure the sting of unemployment is soothed by his $25 million pay out.
  2. After spending time reading about Bill O’Reilly this morning and then sitting in an hour and a half meeting, I read (with a great deal of longing) Forbes “The Best Places to Retire in 2017.” The mind and body are willing, the 403B isn’t. I’m looking forward to reading about Forbes best places to retire in 2037. That’s painful to write. I’ve reached a point in life, though, were retirement becomes this actual thing instead of some abstract concept in the long-away future. I particularly like that the list seems to privilege college towns and lower cost housing. Retirement isn’t just about money (thank goodness). Keeping costs down, having easy access to medical services, and living someplace with low cost entertainment matters.
  3. The Texas Senate has advanced a bill to gut the top 10% rule. These types of bills pop up every couple of years. For those of you outside the great state of Texas, years ago the state mandated that state institutions automatically admit any student who finished in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. The idea was to create diversity at public institutions without requiring race-based admissions. Using high school standing takes into account the impact race and economics has on ACT/SAT performance and rewards good students from bad high schools with automatic admission to a state institution. Of course, both the U of Texas and Texas A&M have waivers. For those of us at mid-sized regional universities, gutting the top 10% rule would help as those students who weren’t admitted to UT or A&M would be forced to go with plan B and attend less expensive, high quality regional universities. Works for me. I’m weary of our state representatives writing bills and higher ed policies based on what works at UT and A&M and forgetting the other colleges in the state. The current budget proposed anywhere from 4% to a 10% cut for higher ed, cuts that some of smaller schools can’t absorb. In 2001, the state portion of higher ed funding was 65% and students paid 35%. Today, those numbers are reversed, even as our legislators tell us they want more graduates. We’ve done more with less for so long, I fear we’re about to do less with almost nothing.
  4. If you have a chance, read Adrianne Jeffries’ “How Google Eats A Business Whole.” After, try not to get worried that we’re giving our entire lives over to machines that will control knowledge and truth. Reminisce about the good old days when Bill O’Reilly was around to tell you what to think. If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ The Circle (read a great review here and an old blog of mine here), check it out. His novel (spoiler alert!) is about how social media has infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life. (Hopefully, the movie will live up to the novel.) Jeffries’ dos a nice job, unintentionally, of showing exactly why it’s so difficult to teach research skills to students these days. Who are the experts? How do you trust data? Where is truth (or truthiness for any Colbert fans out there)? As importantly, we probably need to start paying more attention to the way social media, information aggregate sites, and invasive data purveyors shape ideas and impact business. In the meantime, I wonder what google has to say about dual credit?

 

 

 

 

Declare Those Pennies on Your Eyes

IRSWriting about taxes on tax day seems so intellectually lazy. Complaining about our complex, confusing, largely unequal, and definitely incomprehensible tax system simply doubles down on the cliche. After all, American’s don’t agree on much, but I think it’s pretty universal that the systems by which we collect money at the local, state, and federal level have become so bloated and outrageous that the only people satisfied are politicians sucking at the public teat and tax accountants who try to guide the rest of us lost souls through the process. Apologies to tax accountants for tethering you to politicians.

Yet, here I sit the morning after our college-age son had to pay 10% of his pretty meager “income” to Uncle Sam after filing his taxes last night. Both our boys worked hard and earned generous academic scholarships. Instead of forking over tuition dollars, I’ve been able to buy a big screen t.v.  (Who says reading to your kids doesn’t pay off!) Last night, though, as my younger son completed his taxes, we found out that scholarship money above and beyond tuition, fees, and required books counts as taxable income.

Really? Somehow, some hair-brained numbskull in our nation’s capital decided that we really need to go after all that extra money full-time college students are pulling down in their spare time between classes. Can’t let those crazy kids live too high on the hog, after all. Better declare those pennies on your eyes, as George Harrison says.

I’m not trying to express some sort of Unabomber outrage. I’ll willingly admit that I do think people need to pay their fair share in taxes. For my money, our taxes give us access to goods and services that make America great, and we need to share those costs. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s much less expense if we share the cost of military protection among the all 300 million of us than if we all form our own isolated feudal compounds and hire our own protection. Public schools, public roads, consumer protections, and thousands of other “goods” work much better when centralized and when costs are shared. Having healthy debates about what those shared costs should be is worthwhile (and, in theory, something we do every election cycle when we vote for candidates based on their debates about the issues–ha, ha, ha!).

As such, I don’t mind taxes on goods and services, property taxes, or other taxes associated with my choice to consume various goods and services. I think it’s worth reminding everyone that rich and poor, citizen and alien, old and young all pay taxes into the system simply by living and consuming in America. Likewise, I have no issues with federal taxes on income, capital gains, inheritance income, and I fully support requiring that all workers pay into the federal system, even if that amount is as small as 1% of earned income. There’s nothing wrong with ensuring everyone has a little skin in the game. I’ll even admit that I’m a fan of a progressive flat tax system with limited deductions to avoid letting the government pick winners and losers based on who hires the best lobbyists.

Full-time students should have access to that limited set of deductions. My son pays taxes when he buys his books, pays for food, and pays rent. He, like any full-time student moving toward graduation, has limited earning possibilities, though, if he’s going to take enough classes each semester to graduate in four years. Those students who work, like my older son who covered his living expenses as a student, pay taxes every paycheck, but they (usually) get a refund at the end of the year because they don’t earn much.

For students who earn scholarship money above and beyond the cost of tuition, though, the tax bill hits even if the amount above and beyond is the same as their colleagues who work. My son last night paid 10% of his scholarship to Uncle Sam. I’m sure if there’s a CPA reading this blog you can tell me there was IRS Form 666 or something we could have filed, but my son shouldn’t have to do do. Likewise, my older son, once he marks full-time student on his W-2 should be exempt from having money withdrawn. He shouldn’t have to wait for a refund. Let’s put money in the pockets of those citizens who need it the most, especially those who are working to improve their futures (and future earnings).

Like so many other things, we can’t trumpet the value of an education and then actively work to make earning that degree difficult. Students who earn scholarships are being paid to do well in school. That money isn’t income; it’s a long-term investment. After, Uncle Sam’s going to get his eventually, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)