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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.

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.

Trying to Turn English, Reading, & Literature Into a Numbers Game

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

These Obamacare Ads for College Students Can’t Be Real, Right?

As the provisions in the Affordable Care Act start rolling out, the state of Colorado decided to spread awareness with one of the most confusing ad campaigns I’ve ever seen.

keg_stand

Let’s catalog this ad’s many crimes against humanity:

  • Stealing the tagline and font from the “got milk?” campaign, which may very well be older than the models used in this campaign.
  • The “word” “brosurance.”
  • The sentence “Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills.”
  • Attempting to turn the perfectly good “Thanks, Obama!” meme into a tagline for insurance.
  • A website that is genuinely called “doyougotinsurance.com.”
  • The combination of calf-high white socks and American flag shorts.
  • The combination of backwards baseball cap and tank top.
  • The “word” “brosurance.”

This is satire, right? It has to be. I refuse to accept this as a real thing. This was put together by people who are secretly criticizing healthcare reform, right? It has to be. Please tell me this isn’t real. The world isn’t that sad of a place.

But wait, there are other ads in the campaign that weren’t written by crazy people.

mom

Okay… that’s weirdly normal. Now I’m even more confused. The message here is “You shouldn’t have to go shopping for medical help. You should get medical help when you need it,” whereas the message of the last ad was “Who needs a liver when you’ve got easy access to a healthcare brofessional? #YOLO”

What are you trying to do here, Colorado? Do you just have a really low opinion of college students? Do you even have a plan, or are you just throwing models on white backgrounds and freestyling the rest?

Why Aren’t College Students More Invested in College Town Politics?

iStock_000015650351XSmallThe traditional idea of a college town is one that’s truly built up around the college. These towns have bars and restaurants packed with students. They root for the school’s sports teams, especially the local hotels and motels who fill up with visiting family during games and graduations. The campus is the most identifiable landmark in town. It’s the largest contributor to the local economy. It’s in the identity of the town.

Many of the largest state schools are in these sorts of towns. The students of Arizona State University makes up over a third of the population of Tempe. University of Georgia students a little shy of 30% of Athens’ population. Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, a city of 42,620. Total number of students at VA Tech? 31,087. Over 70%.

Yet in most cases, the student population is considered essentially transient, and that has a big impact on both the way these towns think about the students as members of the community and the way the students view themselves.

Berkeley, CA, realizing the size and impact of UC Berkeley (about 32% of city population), recently approved a measure that would let the school be considered its own voting district. It was an amazing act of faith in the judgment of the student body and their say in local politics. A similar proposal was suggested regarding the University of Vermont (about 27% of Burlington), but was dismissed by the local government. The Burlington city government simply assumed that students would not be interested enough to get involved.

That assumption might not be as baseless as it sounds. UVM hasn’t been able to drum up enough enthusiasm among the student body. So what’s happening? Why would students pass up the opportunity for greater direct influence?

As politically involved as students can be, it’s rare to see that same passion applied to local politics. As far as I can tell, here are the biggest reasons why:

  • The student body is made up of lots of people from lots of different places. I went to a college outside of my home state, and probably around 80% of my friends were from out of state (or country) too. Our local politics were the decision made by the school itself. That’s what had a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. It didn’t feel like we moved into a community as much as we created a new community of people from around the country (or planet).
  • Local politics aren’t as flashy, dramatic, or interesting as national/international politics. Strike up a conversation about politics and it would usually be (at the time I was in college) about the Iraq War, abortion, or gun control. Either international relations or broad social issues. As students (especially at a liberal arts college), we were used to speaking about vague theoretical concepts of how things should be. We weren’t used to discussing practical issues like construction on the freeway or a tax hike on property owners. We had very little media exposure to city-level concerns, even in the media we created ourselves (like student newspapers).
  • Students don’t think of themselves as members of the community yet. It’s a little like the old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We get so used to thinking of our education as the time before we start our “real” lives. Local politics don’t seem like something we can, or should, be a part of yet. College students have largely not yet been greeted as full adults, so on some level, they don’t see themselves as full adults.

If Burlington changes its mind and lets UVM become a district, I think it would the student interest would follow. Students would be more interested in local politics if they were invited to become more invested. But if the city/community doesn’t try to get the students involved, it’s unlikely they’ll bother.

Whether or not a city wants so many young people to have a more powerful voice is a different matter…

 

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.

Opinion: Supreme Court Makes the Right Call on Affirmative Action, Pleases No One

A photo of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

This morning, the Supreme Court kicked off its summer blockbuster season with a long-brewing case on affirmative action. We first talked about the case last October, where an aspiring college student named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas: Austin for discrimination after not being accepted.

The Supreme Court’s call was agreed upon 7-1. (There were only 8 votes since Justice Kagan recused herself.) To make a long ruling short, the Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts, saying that they didn’t scrutinize UT-Austin’s admissions process closely enough before sending the case along.

If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well… it is. The justices said quite a bit on the nuanced topic, but decided on very little. But all things considered, that was probably the best thing they could have done. Any sweeping decision on affirmative action — for or against the policy — could only have resulted in lots of unfairly disenfranchised people.

A nuanced topic needs a nuanced ruling, and the Supreme Court’s non-decision only reflects the pointlessness of the question “Is affirmative action good or bad?” It’s both and it’s neither. Kicking the case back down to the lower courts just shows that if you want the Supreme Court to give you a straight answer, you need to ask them a more specific question.

Race-conscious admissions discriminate unfairly. Race-conscious admissions help establish and maintain a diverse academic community. Both of these statements are undeniably true, meaning we can’t entirely get rid of affirmative action, even if we haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet.

Personally, I’m more sympathetic toward the UT-Austin administrators trying to establish a balanced admissions system (even if the end result is deeply flawed) than I am toward a single student who didn’t get into her first choice of school. That being said, I’m glad these sorts of cases get brought up, because affirmative action should be scrutinized heavily. It’s the only way to develop, over time, a system better than what we currently have. Delaying a decision was the right call. This topic needs more time to evolve.

Was This ‘Sweatshop’ Simulation Game Too Offensive for Your iPad?

Screenshot from "Sweatshop HD" game

One of the “perks” of getting apps through the App Store is that, unlike downloading desktop software from a random website, Apple screens and approves each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of available apps. For better or worse, that means Apple gets to decide what’s fit for consumption and what’s not.

Most of the time that means blocking copyright violations and pornography, but every once in awhile something will get flagged for reasons that are a bit more unclear.

A bitingly satirical iPad game called Sweatshop HD was recently yanked out of the App store because, according to LittleCloud, the studio that built the game, Apple was uncomfortable with the game’s themes. LittleCloud resubmitted the game with an added disclaimer that the game’s intent was primarily to educate people on social justice issues, and that it was designed with input from the Labour Behind the Label campaign. Apple still wouldn’t lift the ban.

I checked out the game myself (still available as a flash-based browser game) to see just how offensive, beyond the title and premise, this game could be. The game opens with a brightly animated and stylized opening, where customers swarm to grab “Le Shoes” designer sneakers. The camera then pans rights to the shoe warehouse, right again to a fleet of shipping freighters, and finally back to a sweatshop conveyor belt, manned by tired, dehydrated, injured, and underage workers.

You play as a member of middle management, who needs to hire and position workers to handle the flow of materials down the conveyor belt. You’ll routinely get yelled at by your boss to maximize profits and approached by a wide-eyed Dickensian child worker asking for basic things like water. Naturally, since it’s a game, your competitive side will encourage you to cut corners in any way necessary to get the highest possible ranking, usually to the detriment of your workers.

It’s all fairly tongue-in-cheek until you start completing levels. Each time one ends, you’ll be presented with two paragraphs or so or real-life information and statistics about life as a sweatshop worker. These jar you out of the fantasy of the game every few minutes, and set the project pretty firmly on the side of satire, not just gallows humor.

While developed by an independent studio, the game was produced in part by Channel 4, a British commercially funded, but publicly owned, broadcasting network. That fact lends a lot of credence to LittleCloud’s claim that this game was intended primarily to be educational. As a piece of publicly funded entertainment, this is basically Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

So why was Sweatshop‘s brand of educational satire considered inappropriate, but the casual, maniacal violence of, say, Grand Theft Auto III acceptable?

LittleCloud points out that Apple’s developer guidelines are somewhat vague, and grant Apple a fair amount of leeway on what it will and won’t allow. LittleCloud highlighted one line in particular from the weirdly casual guidelines:

“We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

I understand Apple’s need to give themselves carte blanche in making judgment calls, but personally, I find this statement more dismissive and offensive than anything in Sweatshop. The patronizing tone of “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book” is pretty bold insult to the countless game designers who’ve tried to make games with goals loftier than killing time.

Having games criticize real-world themes isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. Bioshock was a retro-futuristic sci-fi that doubled as a criticism of ObjectivismSpec Ops: The Line criticized the fetishistic way most games idolize modern warfare. Another browser-based flash game, Darfur is Dying, intended to spread awareness of atrocities committed in Sudan by letting you manage a virtual refugee camp.

The developer guidelines’ blanket condescension of games’ ability to address serious issues is entirely unfair to both the people who want to make, and to play, games about something more than, let’s say, throwing birds at pigs.

You can play the game and make your own call here.

Should Some Majors Cost Less Than Others?

"Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."

Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned here before, this isn’t exactly true.

A report thrown together by a Florida task force on education has proposed that more in-demand and higher paid majors (science, engineering, math, and tech) should pay less for tuition than the less in-demand majors (art, history, English, etc.).

You can read the whole proposal here, and marvel at the delightfully cheesy stock photography included for no reason.

Now before anyone in the comments turns this into a science vs. humanities spitting contest, please remember that we are not anti-science. Far from it. We’re not anti-anything, other than really bad ideas. And this is one of those really bad ideas.

Now, loyal readers will remember that I’ve used this blog to object to the misguided good intentions of a Florida educational task force once before. This post is going to read a bit like that one again. Once again, the state has a problem, in this case, not enough people entering fields that really boost the state’s economy. Once again, a short-sighted solution doesn’t seem to take into account the way people actually think.

The proposal would institute a tuition freeze for the fields the Florida government decided are the most valuable. So while studio art degrees go up and up year after year, engineering degrees would stay where they are. “Most valuable” here means “will lead to jobs that make the most money.” This is valuable to the state, of course, because higher earners will pay more in taxes.

Now before you claim there’s some sort of anti-right brain bias, know that the task force chair suggested Florida State could theoretically lobby to freeze the tuition for creative writing and film as well, since there’s been some success getting people into the entertainment industry so far. So if your school has celebrity alumni, than congratulations, you can pay less for taking the same classes they did.

The proposal seems to operate on this assumption: if certain degrees are cheaper, more people will get those degrees. But this makes no sense. These degrees are for higher paying jobs. If a higher salary for life doesn’t convince someone to work in a certain field, why would paying slightly less for four years make any difference at all? (more…)

Could Facebook Affect How You Vote?

Message saying "I voted... did you?"

Anybody who logged onto Facebook on election day got hit with a crazy number of “go vote!” messages. Most were from your friends, many were from the companies you’ve Liked. (We tried to make ours go down easier by pairing it with a picture of an adorable puppy.) But there were also some messages from Facebook itself. They were either just general messages to go vote or a list of your friends who’ve already voted (who then told Facebook that they voted, of course).

But here’s where it gets interesting. Not everybody saw these messages. Four percent of Facebook users got no message. Why?

Facebook button saying "Remind Friends to Vote"
Because they were all being subjected to a big social experiment.

The Atlantic explains:

By splitting up the population into these experimental and control groups, researchers will be able to see if the messages had any effect on voting behavior when they begin matching the Facebook users to the voter rolls (whom a person voted for is private information, but whether they voted is public).

Researchers want to know if social pressure from Facebook affects people’s decisions about voting. So, with Facebook’s cooperation, they’re seeing if the “your friends are voting” messages gave people the final push to perform their civic duty.

For most people, Facebook and politics are like potato chips and cupcakes — addictive on their own, but pretty revolting when paired together. The number of posts for (or more likely, against) a candidate before the election was topped only by the number of posts by people complaining about their Facebook feeds being hijacked by friends talking politics.

(Somebody could make a killing on a Facebook app that blocks all references to specific candidates. Get on that, innovators.)

But maybe the constant politi-chatter is reinforcing your political beliefs as it annoys you. You might roll your eyes when one of your friends posts “NOBAMA!”, but maybe that post is a reminder for liberal voters to cancel out that guy’s vote and a reminder for conservative voters to back that guy’s vote up. Maybe individual political messages all blur together after awhile, but the combined effect of seeing them again and again every day helps you develop your opinion.

Think about it this way: Ask the next person you see which presidential candidate they voted for. Most people will answer quickly. Now ask someone how they voted for a specific local ballot measure. Many people won’t even be able to remember.

And which are you more likely to see as a Facebook post — “NOBAMA” or “MEASURE 82, I CHOOSE YOU!”?

(Note to self: Make Pokémon themed bumper sticks supporting ballot measures that end in 2′s.)

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