Bookbyte Blog

Archive for the ‘Life After College’ Category

Nova Scotia Throws Out Student Loan Interest

500px-Flag_of_Nova_Scotia

In a move that mirrors the proposal in Oregon we talked about a few months back, Canadian province Nova Scotia has voted to eliminate interest on college student loans. The legislation is a deliberate and explicit move to remove the crippling financial burden of debt from new students as they start their careers.

Other provinces (and states) should take note. This is a no-brainer. Investing in your college graduates is how you build toward a prosperous future. In an era where the rapidly rising cost of a college education makes more and more people question if the degree is worth the investment, it is in the government’s best interest to reassure people about the value of higher education.

The only lesson to take away from the huge recession a few years back is that searching for short-term gains at the expense of long-term growth is never worth the cost. Let’s be more cautious about who we give loans to and more forgiving about paying them back. The purpose of a loan is an investment in a person or an idea, not a bait and switch to rake in interest and penalties. It’s true with houses, and it’s just as true with students’ futures.

Stop Telling Students How Much More Money They’ll Make With a Degree

I would prefer not to live in a country in which rhetoric about the purpose of college urges kids from privileged backgrounds to be innovators and creators while the poor kids who do very well in school are taught to be educated, capable employees.

This quote comes from  this article, titled “The Danger of Telling Poor Kids That College Is the Key to Social Mobility” by Andrew Simmons. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in educational issues and socioeconomic differences. The whole thing really hits the nail on the head.money_on_string

Simmons argues that focusing on the monetary rewards of a bachelor’s degree does a disservice to the other, more attractive qualities of college. These are the liberal arts benefits — experimenting with new ideas, expanding your outlook, and learning how to think and communicate critically. We’ve talked about that same point on this blog before, only our focus was on the idea that focusing on how STEM majors earn more money does a disservice to the potential for curiosity and innovation among STEM majors. Simmons indirectly refers to that same point with this statistic: 32% of college students pick a major that doesn’t interest them. Then, big surprise, those 32% are less likely to graduate.

But Simmons’ primary focus is on economic background. While he’s vague about his exact credentials, he makes it clear that he teaches students from lower income families. Again and again, he asserts, the message that lower-income students receive throughout middle and high school is that going to college leads to more money. It’s just assumed that this will be the primary motivator for the less financially privileged.

And that’s ridiculous. Students who have grown up in a household where money is tight already understand the value of a dollar, moreso than their more affluent classmates. The last thing they need is a reminder that money is the end-all, be-all of a career. It’s like we don’t trust poorer students to imagine big, and that’s incredibly disrespectful to their imaginations.

Once you’re out of school and in a career, you really start to see the limits of money as a motivator. Money can motivate you to get out of bed in the morning to go collect your paycheck for a day’s work. It might even motivate you to push yourself a little further for a promotion.

But money can’t motivate you to pour your heart and soul into a project you truly believe in. It can’t motivate you to break the mold. The former is good enough for most people to get by, but the latter is necessary for the people who really want to make a difference or create something great. As Simmons points out in his quote above, that’s the difference between employees and innovators.

Students going into college deserve both more honesty and more encouragement about college. We need to be honest that a degree doesn’t lead directly to a job. We need to be honest that college isn’t for everybody. But we also need to foster bigger ideas in the students that do want to go to college. It’s not about earning potential. It’s about whether a student can look back on his or her college career and feel like they took full advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Oregon Considers Offering Free Tuition. You Can Pay Them Back Later.

800px-UofOsign

Back in the summer, the Oregon State Legislature agreed to a plan that would allow students to attend public universities and community colleges for free. In return, the student agrees to pay a small percent of his or her income after graduation.

It’s more or less an interest-free loan. After all, from the government’s perspective, the biggest problem with student loans is that they cripple graduating students with debt right as they become fully functional members of the economy. While the terms of individual loans vary, they also all work more or less on the principle that getting a degree means you’ll soon be making money. Recent grads know that’s not always the case.

The consequences of these painful interest rates are far-reaching. The higher interest rates get, the longer it takes graduates to move out of their parents’ house, to buy cars, and to buy homes instead of rent them. Nobody but the lenders benefit.

That’s the reasoning for Oregon’s plan. As the number of students needing to take out loans increases, there’s greater incentive for the government to make sure these future members of society aren’t economically handicapped right out of the gate.

The proposal isn’t without its flaws. The length of the percentage payout is a whopping 25 years, and since it’s based on a fixed (though small) percentage, graduates will presumably pay more as they go along. Even if, statistically speaking, this plan saves you money in the long run, those savings are based on the assumption that you’ll only be making so much money over the next two and a half decades. That’s a hard concept for a lot of people to accept. We all want to be millionaires at some undisclosed point in the future.

There’s the additional problem of enforcement. The state government will have to track the income of every student as they move to different states and different countries. And there are actually restrictions on what data educational institutions can collect on students. More restrictions in education than for credit companies, believe it or not.

But Oregon is moving forward with the pilot regardless, and hopefully they’ll figure out better solutions to these problems as they go along. A number of other states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio — have filed similar proposals with their legislations. So who knows? This weird idea might become the new normal.

A Timeless Speech from the Creator of Calvin & Hobbes… in Comic Form

See the full strip at Zen Pencils

See the full strip at Zen Pencils

I worry constantly about dating myself in these blog posts. I’m fully aware that I have less than 2 years of my 20′s left, while most of my readership has significantly more than that. So I hope I don’t make too many references that are meaningless to you guys.

That being said, I can recommend Calvin & Hobbes without reservation to every generation. I was lucky enough to be able to read it while it was being published in newspapers. I also got to see it come to an end, and see just how boring every other comic strip afterwards seemed in comparison. I guess it’s appropriate that newspaper comics have fizzled and died steadily since C&H ended in the mid-90s. So much of what its writer/artist Bill Watterson did helped break away from stuffy newspaper formatting. Most cartoonists these days are web-only, so they can have ambitious designs like xkcd‘s infographics or Homestuck‘s interactive and animated strips.

Anyways, in 1990, at the height of C&H‘s popularity, Watterson delivered the commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon University. It was an excellent speech on the variable definitions of success, lauding people who seek happiness and fulfillment in their work, even if that means turning down more profitable opportunities.

Recently, the artist at Zen Pencils got hold of this speech. Zen Pencils illustrates inspirational quotes from people like Einstein, Buddha, andThoreau as beautiful prints, wallpapers, iPhone covers, etc. The artist rendered a large section of Watterson’s speech in cartoon form, and the results are really a must read for any college student, particularly those about to graduate or those with ambitions, creative or otherwise, that aren’t directly linked to profit.

In keeping with Watterson’s merchandise ban on Calvin & Hobbes, Zen Pencils isn’t selling this print, just letting the cartoon form speak for itself.

Your Class Schedule Isn’t Enough to Get You a Job

99% of resumes divide their information into two sections: Education and Work Experience. There’s a reason for this. Potential employers want to know about your education to see what your interests are, what your talents are, if you’re generally pretty smart, and if you have a nice looking institution to put next to your name. They want to know about your work experience so they can tell how you’re able to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of a workplace and if you can meet the minimum requirements of the job.

iStock_000009629000XSmall In other words, employers look at your education to know who you are. They look at your work experience, on the other hand, to see what it is you can do.

Despite this visible distinction right on the resume, many entry-level applicants, especially the ones who have impressive higher education credentials, think leaning on their education will be good enough.

I don’t care if you aced all your classes at Harvard. If you aren’t showing off outside interests, experience, or ambition, you’re not offering your employer very much at all.

So how do you fill out those non-education chunks of the resume? By volunteering, working odd jobs, and extracurriculars. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but I’m going to try to be as crudely practical about it, based on my observations, as I can. Hopefully that’ll provide a fresh perspective.

Volunteering. Aside from all the good altruistic reasons for volunteering, from a purely strategic perspective, volunteering is a great way of getting work experience without competing for the job position beforehand. It doesn’t matter all that much what you’re doing, but if you want to show that you can show up to work on time, follow instructions, and work well in a group, give up a few hours to a soup kitchen, a youth group, or whatever other charitable labor you can find.

Working odd jobs. Work experience doesn’t have to mean a corporate position with benefits, 401(k)s, and regular salaries. Anything you can get paid for doing (as long as it’s legal) counts as a job. So if you need to show that you can hold your own in a professional setting, mow some lawns, paint some houses, or weed some garden beds. If you do it enough times over the course of a couple months, then you’re technically “freelance.”

Extracurriculars. After your first one or two jobs, the structured things you did with your spare time aren’t going to matter very much. You’ll probably cut them out of your resume altogether. However, before that first job, the extracurriculars are not optional. They’re an essential part to the overall story of you as a professional. Whatever field you want to work in, you’ll need to prove that your interest in it runs deeper than the minimum credits required to get your degree. And you’ll need these extracurriculars, once again, to show off your ability to handle the basics of a professional setting: showing up on time, handling responsibilities, and working well with others.

3 Massive Screw-Ups Blamed on Interns

A finger held disconcertingly close to Sideburns' faceIt’s no fun being an intern. If you’re lucky enough to get an internship that actually pays you, it’s probably chump change. It’s unlikely you’re doing the work you want to be doing. You’re almost entirely at the mercy of the company you’re working for, and they don’t have much reason to treat you as well as their normal employees.

Continually fighting the tedium of your position, avoid the temptation to editorialize, plagiarize, or to try too hard to be funny. Because if you do and it makes the company you work for look bad, you’re already in ready, aim, fire position.

Then again, saying “uh… the intern did it” is a pretty lame, cliched PR excuse. It’s entirely possible that none of these public screw-ups actually were the intern’s fault. We might want to consider the possibility that there wasn’t even an intern to begin with. But I’ll leave that to you to decide, depending on how much you trust politicians and government bureaucracies to own up to their responsibilities.

1. Plane crashes aren’t the best time for bad puns

KTVU, a local news channel in San Francisco, recently pulled a Ron Burgundy when reporting on the recent Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco airport. The network reported the names of the pilot and crew as a  string of cheesy, racist puns. Asiana Airlines threatened to sue. KTVU obviously needed an excuse fast. They apologized, saying they only read these names after confirming them with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB followed up with their own excuse, saying this was all the work of a devious, rogue intern, who had been promptly fired. The airline ultimately decided to drop the lawsuit.

2. Politicians can’t keep track of what they have and haven’t said, that’s the intern’s job!

During the 2008 presidential election, a web page with a list of “McCain Family Recipes,” something that has no reason to exist apart from illustrating just how stupid our election process is, appeared on the McCain website. Under the section of recipes accredited to Cindy McCain were verbatim copies of Food Network recipes. Campaign spokesman: “The intern [responsible] has been dealt with.” In 2011, former senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown had a supposedly autobiographical section of his website lifted word-for-word from a speech written by former North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole. Brown: “It was a summer intern that put together the site.”

3. The thousands upon thousands of tweets that come back to haunt their senders

If I had a dollar for every time something stupid was posted on Twitter… wait, let me back up… that’s far more money than I could ever spend in a thousand lifetimes. If I had a dollar for every time a company or politician followed up a stupid tweet with a “But I don’t even know how to Twitter!” type excuse, I’d be a rich, rich man. Listen, politicians, just because you don’t understand social media and your interns do, doesn’t mean your interns should be solely responsible for handling what’s said on Twitter, Facebook, etc. All that proves is that you don’t understand how powerful social media can be. Would you ask someone who was only getting paid with a handshake and recommendation to send out your press releases unapproved and unedited? Of course not. Twitter is the exact same thing, except the damage and bad press fallout occurs about 1,000 times faster.

It’s Better to Drop Out Than to Never Try, Says Study

A four-year college degree isn’t for everybody. I’d be reluctant to even say it’s for most people. However, everybody needs and deserves education. Our society just needs to do a better job recognizing the validity of the huge variety of types of education for different types of people, interests, and careers.

I know a lot of people who went to college, but I know less people who have diplomas stuffed in a drawer somewhere. And that’s totally fine.

Now we have proof that this is totally fine, found in a paper from economic think tank the Hamilton Project. Turns out the boost to your lifetime salary received from even a little college experience significantly exceeds the amount you spend to attend. (Students with some college experience earn $100,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than students who have none.) If you’re looking at higher education as an investment into a future career, it’s worth getting any amount you can pull off.

Naturally, if you’re looking at this purely in terms of numbers, a degree still helps a lot more. Students with bachelor’s degrees earn $500,000 more in their lifetimes than students who end their education after high school.

However, let’s say you’re a struggling high school senior who knows he can make it into college, but isn’t sure if he can make it through. Pursuing a degree isn’t an all or nothing proposition. Getting half a degree still leaves you with half of what you’d learn if you hadn’t tried at all. And that will have some impact on what opportunities you get once you enter the workforce.

Ever heard anyone say, “Reach for the moon. Even if you don’t make it, you’ll land among the stars”? If you can ignore the horribly inaccurate astronomy, it’s still advice worth thinking about.

How Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Hands holding a sign reading "Will Work for Credits"

The further along students get in their education, and the closer they get to entering the workforce, the more the line between the two starts to blur. College athletes, for example, aren’t getting paid for their athleticism, other than the lucky ones offered scholarships. But in many cases, their hard work is still making truckloads  of money for their universities.

Internships are the tipping point between education and career. But if higher education is something that you pay to do and employment is something that you are paid to do, which of the two is an internship?

It’s a point of contention, for sure. A group of former interns recently sued the Hearst Corporation in a class action suit, claiming they were owed back-pay. The judge threw out the case, saying they didn’t meet the definition of a “class,” since the work done varied too much between individuals. But if the case had been able to play out, it would have come down to an argument over the nature of the work. Were the interns primarily there to receive instruction and experience, or were they there as a free source of labor?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, there’s a few criteria an unpaid internship must meet to be legally acceptable:

  • It must give educational training.
  • It must be for the benefit of the intern.
  • It can’t displace regular employees.
  • It can’t give your employer a competitive advantage.
  • It isn’t a lengthy try-out for a full-time job.
  • Everybody involved has to know and agree to the fact that there’s no paycheck.

As you can see, a few of these definitions are more than a little fuzzy. (Though keep in mind the phrasing used is mine.) Every job benefits the worker on some level, even if it’s just another line you can put on a resume, so I’m not sure how even the most mind-numbing internship would fall short of that requirement. Also, every intern does work that ties back into the objectives of the company somehow, otherwise no company would hire interns. So while “displacing employees” and “competitive advantage” might be a little strong, in one way or another all interns will be doing work that someone else could be doing. That being said, these vague rules are probably about as fair as they can be, considering the already vague definition of the word “internship.”

So should companies pay for internships or not? It’s a tough question. The classic anti-unpaid argument is that unpaid internships only offer opportunities for employees financially stable enough to work for free. Therefore, if an internship is the expected entry point to a career, that career is only available to people in good socioeconomic standing.

But, fair or unfair, how is that different from any form of higher education? At least an intern doesn’t have to pay the company in anything other than time. Sure, college students can take out loans, but that just leaves them saddled with debt. Either way, isn’t the ultimate objective of both the same: to gain the experience and credentials to help launch your career?

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I took an internship with a newspaper. It didn’t pay and I couldn’t use it for credit. Still, I’m happy I did it. It gave me a major leg-up when looking for entry-level positions after graduation. It got me my first job. But I also only did it for two and a half months. Long enough to get what I needed: experience and recommendations.

I have no doubt that there are a lot of businesses out there exploiting their interns as a source of cheap (or free) labor. But interns should keep in mind that they might be able to exploit those businesses too. Find the business that will give you experiences you can use as future leverage.

The key deciding factor should not be money, but should be variety. If the internship is just repeatedly doing a single, simple, and boring task, it’s not probably not worth doing. If the internship means you get to be shoved into a dozen different bottom-level tasks, then there’s educational value, as well as a dozen new things you can put on a resume and spin into something bigger during future interviews.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: