What exactly is college good for, again?

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?

Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:

In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.

So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.

And here’s a powerful op-ed  about the value of college from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:

I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.

But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.

That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.

It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life  — or someone fervently atheist.

I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.

Bruni writes:

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.

I also found this Times story — about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:

I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.

I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.

Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.

I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.

My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.


In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.

Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.

One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.

(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways
Colleges look so serious and authoritative…don’t they?

If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?

If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?


Ilegitimate Sources — The New York Times Wrist-Slaps A Reporter

Image by laffy4k via Flickr

I enjoy watching The New York Times doing its little mea culpa dance as choreographed each week by its public editor Clark Hoyt.

This week, it’s a reporter who received some wrist-slapping on this issue. This is a staffer who answers to an editor who expects productivity — i.e. published stories. But he also expects high standards and this reporter is on salary. He’ll get paid no matter how long it takes to find sources, or if they back out or if he can’t even find any.

The problem was this reporter’s unwillingness to find people to interview that he did not know personally beforehand, and this small group included three other sources, according to Hoyt, who have already been quoted many times in the paper. One of them is even a fellow freelancer for the paper, and how this got into the final version of his story in the paper is beyond me.

It may surprise some of you to know — or not — that every single freelance writer who writes for the paper is required to read, agree to and sign an ethics code. It’s quite clear to us freelancers, some of whom have filled the Times pages for years for pennies on the dollar versus what staffers warn for filling those same pages to the same standards, that screwing up on this front is simply not an option. We know there are people who would kill their grannies to achieve even one Times byline and quickly replace us. So, if for no other reason, most of us  tend to keep our noses very clean. Which is why watching a staffer play by different rules is really annoying.

He was caught thanks to nytpick.com, which bird-dogs the paper.

One of this ethics code’s many demands is that you do not interview people with whom you have a personal relationship, whether your brother-in-law who’s a perfect example of a laid-off banker or your last babysitter who, because you already know how witty she is, would easily give you some great quote about teens and social media. Tough. They’re all supposed to remain off-limits. It’s a real pain because every freelancer must ruthlessly divide up their time not only on one project but between multiple projects. Digging up smart, thoughtful, insightful, available sources is not that easy and can, therefore, eat up a lot of the time you’ve allotted to a piece — time you also need for reporting, interviewing, writing, editing and revisions. (Yes, we sometimes use HARO, but it has its limitations.) The Times, like almost every publication, negotiates a flat fee with its freelance writers, whether $400 or $4,000, and it’s up to the writer to budget his or her time efficiently, from initial calls and emails to finding and triaging your sources to the many editors’ final questions and revisions, which, at the Times, (I’ve written almost 100 stories for them) can be multiple.

i.e. Being lazy make you the most money.

Why does this matter?

It matters a lot. If, as some of us still persist in believing, newspapers and what they offer us is even semi-impartial — and this was a wildly popular front-page story quoting this staff reporter’s pals — it matters a great deal that a reporter reach beyond his or her own social and professional circle.

Let’s not mince words. How many Times staffers have so wide a network that it includes articulate people of different races, ages and socioeconomic groups able to take a call and willing to chat on the record? A reporter’s job, I think, is not the easiest or quickest or cheapest solution to the challenge of sourcing a story, but taking the extra time and trouble to seek out people who do not look, sound, act or think much as you do — which is what typically happens if you only talk to your friends and close associates. That’s why they’re close.

Diversity in sourcing matters as much as in hiring. Newspapers have a much broader duty to their readers than just repeating what 10 people think. (I’m not saying they’re great at this, but they need to try.)

The hardest, slowest (and therefore costliest in terms of time) part of writing some good stories is finding the sources who can best tell it. Not just the ones we know.

Barack Obama,Timothy Geithner, Valerie Jarrett, Are All TCKs — How It Helps

Mercator projection
Image via Wikipedia

I met a young woman at a dinner party last week whose demeanor and poise were markedly different from all the other educated, smart New Yorkers her age at the table.  She was friendly, outgoing and unusually curious, with an intrigung sort of detachment. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until she told me she had lived abroad for many years as a child, following her father’s corporate relocations around Latin America. She lived in Panama and Costa Rica until she moved back to the U.S., to Miami at the age of 13. A Caucasian, she hated Miami, was heartbroken, disoriented and desperate to go home — to Panama.

Her manner was typical of a TCK — a third-culture kid — a phrase she had never heard before but immediately understood when I told her more.

This sort of nostalgia for another country, or several, despite owning a U.S. passport, is typical of third-culture kids, like President Obama, Treasure Secretary Timothy Geithner and Obama’s closest advisor Valerie Jarrett, those born in the U.S., but who leave it for a significant period of time during their childhood or adolescence, later returning to what is, technically their country, but often one they know little, if at all, a country with a very different culture and values from where they’ve grown up.

As a result of moving around the world and making friends over and over, adapting to new ideas constantly and reaching daily across languages and cultures, TCKs are unusually comfortable in a wide range of situations, able to coolly handle challenges their peers can barely imagine — the woman from Panama described daily confrontations by soldiers armed with M-16 rifles as an accepted part of everyday life. It’s returning to the U.S.’s materialism, individualism and inward focus that often hits them hardest. Kids at school don’t get their references, nor do they necessarily know the same songs and TV shows.  TCKs and their peers have lived in places that some of their teachers, professors, colleagues or neighbors can’t pronounce or even locate on a map, let alone appreciate the returning TCK’s favorite foreign food or music or beach. Their unusual and sophisticated memories are harder to share. As a result, TCKs can move through life forever feeling a little dislocated, never quite fitting in anywhere. Continue reading “Barack Obama,Timothy Geithner, Valerie Jarrett, Are All TCKs — How It Helps”