Monthly Archives: March 2014

Race and College ROI

Today, Slate’s economic correspondent Jordan Weissman posted an article based on the annual ranking of colleges by their return on investment.  Instead of lauding the colleges that landed at the top of the list–mostly prestigious technical schools like MIT–Weissman took it upon himself to identify those schools that will leave their graduates poorest.  The ten worst ROI schools included:

For Weissman, the real take-away message about these schools is that, in his words, they “reinforce why we so desperately need high-quality consumer information about higher education,” noting that the higher education lobby has repeatedly blocked the Department of Education from tracking graduates’ careers to quantify their earning power.

To be fair, I don’t disagree with Weissman when it comes to that point.  I think schools work very hard to distract prospective students from the realities of the cold hard cash they’re going to spend on their education by promoting the myth of “fit” — the notion that when high school seniors visit a campus they will have some kind of magical gut feeling that the school is right for them, a kind of institutional love-at-first-sight.  Who cares if you’re getting a degree in English lit from a university that costs $60,000 per year when you’ll be lucky to nab a starting salary of $36,000 as a high school teacher?  It was just the right fit for you!

As I perused the list of collegiate offenders, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the four worst ROI schools are HBCUs.  Weissman omits this crucial bit of information from his analysis–either because he didn’t recognize the schools as HBCUs or because he thought it was irrelevant to his larger point.  But adding race into the mix of college ROI makes for a much more complicated lesson about higher education and earnings than just ‘students need to know what they’re getting themselves into.’

For one thing, that HBCU graduates in particular are making less over the course of their lives suggests not that the colleges themselves are bad investments but that African Americans continue to suffer from reduced earning power, which cannot contend with rising college costs.  According to this 2012 report from the NAACP African American men earn 72% of what white men earn, and African American women earn 85% of what white women earn (which is, of course, about 80% of what white men make).  While African Americans continue to deal with a lifetime disparity in earnings, their ratio of college debt to income is certainly going to be worse than white students’.  Chalking that ratio up to a ‘bad investment’ is not telling the whole story, to put it mildly.

A second factor to consider is how the ever-privatizing climate of higher education is taking its toll on HBCUs.  Rob Schofield over at NC Policy Watch recently noted that North Carolina Republican governor Pat McCrory, unrelenting in his quest to erase decades’ worth of legislation that made North Carolina arguably the most progressive state in the South, has introduced massive cuts to higher education that have had particularly harsh consequences for HBCUs (while, ironically, serving as the State Honorary Chair of the United Negro College Fund).  When state governments slash funding for higher education, reducing scholarships, financial aid, and the money that pays professors and keeps the lights on, already critically underfunded HBCUs suffer even more.  Their only recourse is to raise tuition, further inflating that debt-to-income ratio for students.

My larger point here is that when we talk about higher education and earning power, we can’t just pass along the blame to students for choosing universities whose tuition exceeds their future earning power.  The problem is not just that some schools are bad investments and students need access to better information about them.  The problem is that the current trend of massive public disinvestment in higher education only serves to further entrench inequalities of race, class, and gender — and that’s a bad investment in our nation’s future.

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Happy (Days Are Here Again)

Pharrell Williams

Pharrell and his hat

If you are alive, you probably have heard Pharrell’s hit Happy by now.  It’s currently at number one on the Billboard charts and starting to reach something like supercut critical mass.  Today, as part of “International Happiness Day” (didn’t know that was a thing!) Pharrell has partnered with the United Nations Foundation to produce a 24-hour long music video featuring people dancing to the song in every time zone to raise money for relief efforts.

I first heard the song, along with the mythology of Pharrell’s sweet hats (please, please, please let him have appropriated one from the Mounties), a few months ago. I even read an article on Slate arguing that Happy was this decade’s answer to Hey Ya (or, in other words, a rap-style song that white people like enough to catapult it to the top of the charts). But it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I began to realize that it was a full-blown cultural trend.   I was idly checking my Facebook feed from my iPhone, not yet ready to get out of bed, when I discovered the viral video of this Detroit children’s choir singing the anti-blues in the form of Happy.  They cheered me up so much that I wanted to listen to the original.  It cheered me up so much that I listened to it again.  And one more time, while brushing my teeth and getting ready for the day.

Cheering me up has not been an easy task lately.  I’ve got the recession blues, endlessly worrying about when and whether I’m going to get a job after my current contract expires.  Happy made me . . . well, you know.  It seemed like a minor miracle.  As I drove to work, I thought about the power of song in dark economic times.  This week, in my U.S. after 1865 class, we’re talking about the Great Depression and the New Deal, and one subject we discussed was FDR’s mastery of the PR machine through clever use of contemporary media.  He was particularly adept at harnessing the power of radio, knowing that every family had a radio after the consumer revolution of the 1920s.  During his presidency, he spoke directly to the public in his legendary “fireside chats,” radio programs designed to make Americans feel as though he was having a friendly conversation with them in their living rooms.

But before he was president, his campaign song was the irrepressible ditty Happy Days Are Here Againsuggesting that when Roosevelt took office the woes of the Depression would be swept away.  Quick-paced and chirpy, it’s music designed for dancing.  Several of its lyrics, such as “The skies above are clear again,” are echoed in Pharrell’s song of happiness, which asserts that “sunshine, she’s here, you can take a break.”  Pharrell’s “can’t nothing bring me down” is not far removed from Happy Days’ “your cares and troubles are gone, there’ll be no more from now on.”  The more I look at their similarities, the more I think that Happy is not so much the response to Hey Ya a decade later but rather the Great Recession’s musical answer, more than eighty years later, to the Great Depression’s most memorable song.  (“You Are My Sunshine” is another candidate, in the same vein.)

Whether or not that’s the case, my own personal response to Happy has certainly informed how I think about songs and fads in history.  It’s hard, with distance, not to look back on people  in the past goin’ apey over a song or movie as more naive than our cynical selves, ‘buying in’ to whatever fad of the day with far more enthusiasm than we could muster today.  Because really, how much much could a song really affect you?  Well, a song got me out of bed yesterday, and it did again today.  In the midst of depression, a song made me dance.  That’s a powerful thing indeed.

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