Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Cost of College: From American Dream to American Crisis

“Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.”

--Benjamin Disraeli
Why is the cost of a college education in the United States so expensive in 2014?

The numbers just don’t make sense.

Take one recent news item. The Boston Globe reports that former Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz is being paid more than $8 million dollars in compensation, post retirement. Reinharz led Brandeis from 1994 to 2010 where he helped raise more than $1.2 billion and oversaw the construction and renovation of 29 buildings. He still works part time there with emeritus status. Good job. But $8 million as the ultimate academic golden handshake? Really? 

He’s not alone in this largesse. These days it pays to be in academic leadership, and often very, very well.  Forty two private university presidents in the U.S. earn more than $1 million a year. The average pay for private university presidents was $423,510 in 2011, ten times the U.S. median income. Public university presidents’ on average earned $421,395.  And this is at a time when public higher education funding is in decline, down by 8 percent last year when forty one out of fifty states slashed their funding. 

The numbers just aren’t correct.

Some personal history…I was blessed to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as was my brother. GO MINUTEMEN! Great school. Great education. My two sisters also attended public colleges, as do 80 percent of all American college students.  Back in the dark ages (1979!) when I was a freshman, my parents paid $2,460 for me to attend UMass—tuition, room and board, fees, everything.  

I didn’t have to take out student loans, nor did my folks, nor my siblings.  We worked jobs on campus and summers to help out. College then was actually affordable, especially a public education.  It was a priority for our middle class family, a point of pride. “Our kids will do better than us and college is the ticket for that upward mobility.” Thanks Mom and Dad. Thanks Massachusetts.

But thirty five years later there’s wicked sticker shock. If I had a child today and wanted to send them to UMass, I’d pay 843 percent more than my folks did, even while inflation since then has only gone up by 243 percent. UMass is not alone in its skyrocketing prices. The U.S. Labor Department reports that while consumer prices have increased across the board in the past decade (i.e. housing by 22.8 percent and health care by 43.1 percent), college costs have risen by 80 percent, more than triple the rate of inflation. 

The numbers just seem completely out of whack.

The scariest figures of all just might be found in student indebtedness. American college students and grads owe more than $1.2 trillion in loans. That’s $1,200,000,000,000.  Delinquency rates on student loans are higher than any other type of consumer debt.  The average debt is $30,000 per student. Seventy percent of college kids need those loans. Total student debt has risen 6 percent a year since 2008. Meanwhile the class of 2013 moved into one of the worst job markets in generations. Their unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, not bad but not great either.  And by the way, you need to start paying back those loans now, regardless of whether or not you are employed.

The numbers just can’t hold anymore.

I want to be optimistic, believe that somehow as a nation we’ll figure out this latest social crisis.  I’ve no doubt a college education is key in our increasingly service, high tech, innovation and information oriented economy. I still believe college is central to the American Dream.  College provides a way up, a way out of hard times, the freedom to prosper and to become all God made us to be. Our children can’t afford not to spend four years on campus.  But can they afford to pay for it anymore? When it comes to American higher education, you don’t need a PhD in mathematics to calculate one conclusion.

In 2014, the numbers just do not add up.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Take a Cue from The Bears: It's Time for January Hibernation

Hibernate (verb) 1. to spend the winter in close quarters in a dormant condition, as bears and certain other animals; to withdraw or be in seclusion  --Random House Dictionary

If you or I were a black bear (ursus americanus) in New England this time of year, right about now, in the depths of January, we’d be sleeping, tucked deeply into a very long snooze, in a den we’d found for ourselves and our children. No need for food because we’ve stored up body fat to live. No need for a potty break either, in fact no bathroom visits for the whole time!  Just sleep, for three to five months, from the time we enter our lair in late October or early November to the day when our biological alarm clocks ring and we wake up right around the beginning of spring.

Not such a bad idea. A long winter’s slumber. A mid-January siesta.  A deep winter’s doze. 

You see about this time each winter I tend to hit an energy low point and find the fact that spring is almost two months away a bit depressing. Maybe it’s because with the New England Patriots loss last Sunday, this year we won’t be able to enjoy a two week Super Bowl party, every one getting excited about the big game and all those parties.  Maybe it’s because Christmas and the holidays are really, REALLY, over now.  I have friends who just this week finally took down the tree, dragged it out to the backyard or up to the attic, a trail of forlorn needles marking a path. They just didn’t want to let go of that blast of light and joy in the darkest of seasons. Neither did I. 

HO, HO, HO? No. 

I suppose if I was one of those gleeful Nordic types, who bundle up like Eskimos in forty two layers of clothing, who ski or snowboard or snowshoe with unrestrained enthusiasm, in frigid temps and northern gales, I’d reject hibernation. You know them: the ones with big grins in the chill, icicles hanging off eyebrows, cheeks all rosy and red, ready to dive into the cold.  But I’m not like that.  Give me the lodge and a fire and hot cocoa any day. 

Or perhaps I fantasize about hibernating because of that blasted polar vortex which swept down upon us from the Arctic just days ago.  The thermometer at my house registered 16 degrees below zero one morning.  Let’s be clear. That is not good. No. Really.  That is cold, WICKED COLD, as we’d say in these parts.  Given the choice between an August heat wave or a February frost, I’ll choose roasting over freezing my keister off every time.

The bears are on to something. Unlike humans they pay attention to the natural cycle and rhythms of the seasons and Creation.  Way back when, before artificial light came to be the norm, our great-grandparents rose when the sun came up and hit the sack when darkness fell.  They warmed themselves around a fire in the stove and read by candlelight.  They slept more and worked less in winter. They listened to their bodies and nature.  They took their cues from the calendar. 

But in 2014 we can now do just about anything at anytime from any place, biological clocks be damned.  Our devices are on 24/7. The harsh light of a screen keeps us up and keeps us on, in the darkness of a winter morning and the deep blue of a frosty dusk.  We inhabit offices illuminated by the white glare of unrelenting fluorescent lights, and ignore Mother Nature, who is right outside the window. 

What time is it? What month is it? What season? Who knows in this modern world of forever pushing back the dark and pushing through to that next thing we just have to do?  No time for hibernation.  No time for some extra zzzz’s in the den. No time to just chill in the chill.

Nature heeds the primordial and instinctual call to rest in winter. The trees and plants are in stasis, bare, quiet.  The animals sleep or have fled to warmer climes. The day is short and compact, the sun low on the horizon, its thin light calling all Creation to take a deep breath and just be. It is January after all.  Every body, every living thing needs precious time to pull back and slow down and recharge, get ready for spring.                  

So maybe, just maybe, we can give ourselves permission to hibernate a bit in the weeks ahead.  Let go of guilt and spend an afternoon on the couch bundled up under a comforter with a favorite book.  Turn off the phone and play “Apples to Apples” in the den in front of a blazing fireplace, with your family. Binge watch a favorite TV show for hours and hours. Take a mid-winter’s mid-day nap, cocooned under the covers. Fall into the rest of leisure and blessed January relaxation.

Those bears have it right.  We may be human but we need to hibernate too.



Monday, January 13, 2014

The Price Americans Pay for Cheap Clothing

Price (noun) 1. the sum for which anything is bought, sold, or offered for sale;that which must be given, done, or undergone in order to obtain a thing             
--Random House Dictionary

Here's an almost impossible task.

Go into your closet or bureau or laundry room and try to find just one piece of clothing, just one, that's made in the United States of America: a pair of socks, a t-shirt, some jeans, or a suit coat. I tried this exercise and after sorting through button down shirts and fleece pull overs and underwear, I struck out.  Not one item manufactured in the U.S.A. is in my wardrobe. The list of countries my clothing comes from was impressive and would certainly make for an adventurous vacation: China, Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Indonesia and Bangladesh. 

It was that last place of manufacture that caught me short, and made me think about the real price I pay for wearing one my favorite flannel shorts, created by people in a clothing factory in Bangladesh.  I do love that shirt and it cost just $12 at Macy’s. Blue and white checks, soft cotton, stylish in a New England wintry kind of way, and all stitched together by some nameless person, a woman probably, maybe even a boy or girl, in a sprawling textile factory, 7,730 miles from my front door. 

You’re forgiven if you aren’t sure just where Bangladesh is: I wasn’t, but a quick search reports that this nation of 157,000,000 folks, and 57,000 square miles (the size of Michigan) is located just east of India in south Asia. There, in more than 5,000 garment factories, four million Bangladeshis make $20 billion worth of clothes for customers around the world, mostly for European and American shoppers. Bangladesh is second only to China in total clothing output. Workers’ are paid the lowest minimum wage in the world: about $38 a month.

But hey—how about this shirt? Good price. Great price, actually.  A bargain. Yet…for what price?  Is my cut rate, low priced flannel shirt really worth it?

For you see Bangladesh is also the sight of two horrendous industrial accidents in the past two years. In November, 2012, a fire swept through a clothing factory in Tarzeen, killing 112 workers.  Then last April in Rana, an eight story garment factory building collapsed, killing 1,131 people, and injuring 2,500. Cracks in the foundation were discovered just days before the collapse, but workers were ordered back into the structure by their bosses while the government ignored safety issues. It was the deadliest clothing factory accident and accidental building failure in modern human history.

There’s a good chance my shirt was made in Rana or a place just like it. Bangladesh factories supply a who’s who of American iconic brands and stores: Wal-Mart, Sears, Target, Macys, The Gap and Old Navy.  To their credit many European companies have stepped up to create a victims’ compensation fund for the Rana workers and families, continuing to pay salaries to surviving employees and the families of those lost. 

But here’s where the cost of my shirt gets even uglier.  Wal-Mart, Sears and The Children’s Place, companies which all contracted with Rana companies for clothing, have yet to take any responsibility or contribute one penny to the fund, as reported by The New York Times.  Not one dime.  In 2012 Wal-Mart made $15.7 billion, Sears reported revenues of $41 billion and The Children’s Place sold kid’s clothes in almost 1,100 U.S. locations.      

There is an amazing power to capitalism and the flow of goods and services around our oh so connected global community.  When companies like Wal-Mart or Sears find places and people like Bangladesh to lower their bottom lines, increase profits and make items cheaper for their customers, they will do so always.  This “market efficiency” guarantees that you and I will very often get very good stuff cheap.  Sears, “Where America shops” and Wal-Mart, “Save Money. Live Better.” both might argue, like lots of other companies, that they are just doing what the customer demands. 

Yet the tragedy of Bangladesh and its dangerous sweatshops reminds us as human beings that nothing ever comes for free, that there is always some price to pay in the marketplace, beyond dollars and cents. 

Yes I do get my favorite shirt.  But American garment workers, who once numbered in the millions, no longer have jobs. Ninety seven percent of all clothing Americans buy is now made overseas. Most tragically, the folks off shore, so far away, out of sight and out of mind, toil away at clanging machines, six days a week, twelve hours a day, in awful working conditions and why?

All so I can save six bucks on a flannel shirt. Is it really worth the price?  I’m not so sure.


Monday, January 6, 2014

How To Break That Habit? Start Just Today.

Endurance (noun) 1. the ability or strength to continue or last, especially despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions; stamina; lasting quality       --Random House Dictionary

So—how many resolutions did you make in the flush of a brand new year, just a week ago yesterday, January 1st, 2014?  According to a study published in the University of Scranton’s  Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45 percent of Americans resolved to change some thing or behavior or habit in the next 51 weeks.  The most common resolution is to lose weight, followed by (in no particular order), to quit drinking or smoking, to save more and spend less, to be organized, to help others, to learn a new skill, to fall in love and to spend more time with family.

All noble. All good. All well meaning and all…well, often pretty much doomed to fail.  The same study reports that the long term success rate for major life changes like these is about eight percent—oops!  The good news is that people who do explicitly make resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve success than those who make no resolutions. But that high failure rate? In the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, he writes that routines and habits are reflected in up to 45 percent of all the choices we make daily, hence the difficulty in changing them. 

For we do have so many habits: the morning coffee, the first cigarette, the glass of scotch after work, the section we always turn to in the newspaper, the webpage we visit first thing on the computer, the food we munch on as we watch TV, the time we get up, the time we go to sleep. All habits. All hard wired behaviors which for better and worse give structure and dependability and “normalcy” to life. In a way we humans are our habits, habitual in how we live and move through each day.

Do a Google search and you can find plenty of strategies and advice on how to break habits and to begin new, healthier habits.  This is the time of year when so many are well along on this task, so well intentioned. The gyms are full. Alcoholics Anonymous rooms are packed.  Weight Watchers chapters are filled to overflowing.  Sales of journals to track all these hoped for habit breakers and makers are through the roof and all begin with this simple phrase: Day 1….

But then our humanity kicks in and we stumble. We want to run but it is really, really cold out, yes?  We want to quit smoking but how about just one more butt with my a.m. java?  Stir fry for dinner? Tomorrow.  I’d love to organize the closet but Downton Abbey’s new season starts and who can miss that?  And so we start and stop or we don’t start at all and then fall back into our habits.

Or not.  Because some among us, the rare few, will succeed.  Will run that first marathon next spring, will stop smoking after 20 years of puffing away, will drop 20 pounds, will tame and defeat one habit and create a new, better habit.  If there’s a secret to that success it may just go back to the first day we start anew.  Just one day. Today. 

The Psalmist writes in the Bible that “This is the day that the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  The spiritual message here is simple and clear.  This day is all that matters. This day is the only day we can make a change. In A.A. the truism is that folks stay clean and sober not forever, but just one day at a time.  The cliché quote reminds us that the longest journey always begins with the first step.

What makes habits so hard to break?  Perhaps just feeling like we have to do it all at once.  We have to get to the finish almost before we even begin. 

But ask a long distance runner how they can do it and they’ll tell you they run just one race at a time, one jog, one journey, one early morning commitment and that’s it.  They get to 26.2 miles second by second, minute by minute and day by day.  They endure. Endurance.  Being in it for the long run, but just for today, drilling down into right now and not worrying about tomorrow.

Ask a person of faith why their belief is so strong and they’ll tell you it all starts with a prayer every single morning, and not just in an emergency or at Christmas or Easter.  As a long distance bicyclist I can tell you the worst thing for me to think before I set out on a long ride is how far I have to go.  The best thing is to just get my backside on the bike and pedal: one circle, one revolution, at a time. 

Endurance isn’t flashy. Endurance offers no short cuts. Endurance depends not on some wacky new diet or cutting corners. Endurance instead recognizes that most humans can achieve almost anything that they set their hearts and minds upon if they just start. If they begin with just one step, one action, one movement away from an addiction or habit and towards a new way of life and living.

Resolved: to change.  But just today. Just by doing one thing.  Endurance: that’s what I’m working for in 2014.  Nine days down.  356 to go and all, just 24 hours at a time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Timely Resolution: All That Matters is Right Now

"Every moment comes to you pregnant with a divine purpose; time being so precious that God deals it out only second by second. Once it leaves your hands and your power to do with it as you please, it plunges into eternity, to remain forever what you made it."
   --Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

It is among the oddest and most surreal, yet most powerful of human constructs: time.  Odd because for all we think about it, talk about it, push up against it, feel overwhelmed by it, seem to never have enough of it...time is not really “real”.  Can't see it or taste it, touch it or hold it.  Time can't be captured or given physical shape. We can judge time by clocks and timepieces and calendars but time finally is completely out of human hands.

Time just is.

Yet how we humans obsess, worry, and think about time, especially this week, the one time all year when more than ever, we are fully aware of time. One year ends. Another begins.  Old man 2013 exits.  New baby 2014 arrives.

So what time is it for you? Fast time? That’s when we experience time as flying by. We look in the mirror and see a face that has aged with time: wrinkles that once were not there now appear, hair gone gray, body a bit creaky.  "Is that really me?" we ask, surprised by the passage of time.  We look at the world and see how much has changed. Folks come and gone.  A world sped up and speeding along.  Children we once held in our arms now walking down the aisle for a wedding.  Neighbors and friends and loved ones, moved away or worse, passed on.  Where does the time go?

Or time: we can experience it as a fearful future or regret filled past.  Time gets wrapped up in all our anxieties about tomorrow.  What will the future hold?  We see the year ahead, this blank palette of endless time and can become anxious.  Will my job be ok?  Will my kids do well?  How will my health hold up?  Or we can hold on to the past, let regret drag us backwards in time.  Hold on to a grudge.  Beat ourselves up for a mistake we made.  Rue how we lost time.

Wow. For not being real, time can really rule our hearts, our lives, and our souls.  Or—we can give our time over to the One who made all time, who holds all time in time: God.  The Universe. That power greater than ourselves. Since time is not ours to tame, perhaps this letting go of time is the best way to begin a new year.

Picture this: God as holding all time, all time, in the Divine hands.  That which has been, that which is, and that which will be.  God only knows tomorrow. God can redeem our yesterdays.  God only gives us one gift of time and that is today, right now, this time. This minute. This tick of the clock.

The present is the only time that is real.  In this second we know we are alive.  We can feel our lungs fill up with air.  See Creation all around us.  Life stretches before us with all it possibilities.  Opportunities abound for love, meaning, hope, new beginnings, joy, all in the precious gift God-given gift of now.  Not in a past we cannot change nor a future we cannot control.  Only now. 

This is God's time. Maybe our time too. So may God bless all of our new years and starting when?

Right now! May you have a Happy, Blessed New Year.