Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Loss of My Grandma

My maternal grandmother, Geraldine Youcha, died in her sleep this morning. I am 36 years old, and have enjoyed umpteen moments with her throughout my entire life, including my wedding (she and my grandfather walked me down the aisle) and the birth of my two children. And yet, incredibly, I feel utterly unprepared for this, and somehow robbed.

I know, these things are not unusual in the least. But my grandmother was entirely unusual.

She was not a milk-and-cookies, teddy bears and snuggles kind of woman. Though she did love sweets (especially ice cream, sour cherry strudel from Andre's Cafe on the Upper East Side, and scones with proper English tea), and kept a nice collection of stuffed animals (especially dogs), and her hugs were warm, she was no June Cleaver.

My grandma graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.  She wrote many books and articles throughout her life, including two of some renown: Children of Alcoholism and Minding the Children: A History of Child Care in America from Colonia Times to the Present.  A consummate intellect, I will remember her best for her comments to me regarding academia.  In particular, I will never forget her asking,"What is this gibberish? Can't you just say it in English?" And on my chosen field, remarking that "Sociology, it seems to me, is the statement of the obvious."  For the last ten years, as I work on manuscript after manuscript, I am constantly thinking of her, whether she will find it worthy and accessible and nicely written.  I have long sent her my work for comment, fearful as I am of the critique but always knowing it makes me so much stronger.

One of my lifelong regrets will be my failure to write and publish my new book When America Goes to College while I still had the chance to get her feedback on it.  I knew I should hurry, and I had the chance over the last several months to tell her about my hopes and plans for it. She's challenged me to ensure that I have control over what the cover looks like, and she affirmed my sense that the book should be free, or at worst cost no more than $20 to purchase. I'm sorry in advance to the publishers who will have to wrangle with me over this-- I'm not budging.

Grandma introduced me to both Dorothy Parker and William Carlos Williams when I was very young. She taught me to memorize their poems and I can still recite several. My favorite is Parker's "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."  Grandma's brother Mel Shavelson, once a writer for Bob Hope, "finished" that poem, she told me, this way "But they passed at the lass who emptied that glass, eh Dorothy, isn't that it?"

I say this while sipping a Bloody Mary, something I'm certain Grandma wouldn't approve of but somehow feeling that judgment brings her ever more present here.  No, I don't come from a line of alcoholics, she was just concerned with what she saw in the world around her and felt women in particular needed to know more about what alcohol could do to their lives.  She's directly responsible for my sense of moderation at family meals, and for my careful recognition that a glass of wine has the same amount of alcohol as a shot and a beer, and I've known this forever and ever.

I know, I digress. I am writing this blog as much for me as for her, but she did come, I think, to understand the blogging a bit by the end. She always wrote these short pieces for ladies' journals, and I feel like blogs are kind of akin to that-- expressions of daily life, captured in brief.  Whatever they are, I love writing them and because that means writing, and brings me to write often, it means being closer to Grandma.

Two weeks ago I shared a sour cherry strudel (and a poppy seed one) with her at 11 pm on a Tuesday night before she went to bed. She remarked how flaky the pastry was, and how talented the chef.  Last week I was there again in New York for business, and experienced administering her eyedrops for the first time, I recall dropping them in and exclaiming "Oh this isn't hard, just like I did to my cat!" and she giggled a little.  I also watched her endeavor to change for bedtime and it hurt so incredibly much to see her strength trying to peek through while worn down in a body that wasn't half the woman she still was.  She knew it, and more than once told me when I asked how she was: "Well. I am."

Last night, I asked my daughter if she wanted to tell Grandma a story. It was hard for her to read, her eyes were bothering her, so I did an audio recording on my phone.  Annie said "yes" right away and proceeded to give a 5-minute long monologue, a story for Grandma.  She'd never done anything like it before, made up a real story out of the blue, going on and on. I felt so thrilled that Grandma would hear this, and texted it to my Poppa immediately. But it was just after 11 pm in New York and I just knew she'd gone to bed.  I said, "Oh well, I'm glad it'll be there in the morning for her" and lay there joyfully as Annie fell asleep on me.

But not forgotten
Dorothy Parker
I think, no matter where you stray,
That I shall go with you a way.
Though you may wander sweeter lands,
You will not soon forget my hands,
Nor yet the way I held my head,
Nor all the tremulous things I said.
You still will see me, small and white
And smiling, in the secret night,
And feel my arms about you when
The day comes fluttering back again.
I think, no matter where you be,
You'll hold me in your memory
And keep my image, there without me,
By telling later loves about me.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Putting the UW System Tuition Freeze in Context

Today's Journal Sentinel has an excellent chart illustrating how the challenge of paying for college in Wisconsin has changed over time

The only problem is that neither the chart or the accompanying article addresses the likely assumption of many readers: students who can't pay these costs, even by working, are "held harmless" through financial aid.  For that reason, many say, we should simply raise tuition further and invest that additional revenue in financial aid distributed to the neediest students.

To evaluate that claim, let's take a look at the "net price" of attending UW-Madison and UW-comprehensives-- the cost paid by the poorest students after taking into account all grant/scholarship aid provided to offset the sticket price.  

At UW-Madison, for the upcoming year 2013-2014, that amount is $13,635.00 for Pell recipients with no expected family contribution.   As you can see in the chart above, that means students from families typically earning less than $30,000 a year are expected to either work 1,866 hours a year (~35 hours/week) or borrow around $68,000 (5 years is typical time-to-degree for these students at Madison).  Is this a reasonable proposition?

In addition, consider that no more than say 3-4% of UW-Madison undergraduates come from this sort of family.  After all, more than 85% of students do not receive any Pell at all. For those students, the net price is over $21,000 in the coming year (total cost in 2013-14i s $24,000).  Redistribution is helping very, very well-- and many students with substantial need deliberately overlooked by the federal "needs analysis" are being left out in the cold. It's no wonder there's now backlash against our financial aid system-- there's universal need and a narrow means-tested system. Never works. 

Now, let's turn to the UW Comprehensives. As this recent presentation from System showed, financial aid tends to reduce the price paid by students at these schools by about $2,200 or 17%.  So instead of an average sticker price of $13,000 at places like Parkside or Stout, students tend to face around $11,000. This still means taking on up to $40-50K in debt or working long hours.  The only way in which institutions can claim to meet the need of students from families earning less than $60,000 is by assuming their willingness to borrow $20,000 or more in loans-- and frankly, that is a big assumption. When these students graduate, they will have debt amounting to a third of their family's income, and despite a focus on their "future earning power" that fact will matter more to them than anything else because the primary use of those future earnings will be to help keep the family that raised them afloat. These are not students whose families can contribute to paying off their debt upon graduation- -they are far more likely to be helping to pay off the debt their families accrued thanks to the substantial opportunity costs faced by losing their child-worker while they attended college.

Other skeptics point to the availability of the 2-year colleges throughout the state, again assuming that their costs are affordable.  While tuition is indeed lower, the costs of attendance itself are not.  Students do not live at home rent free while in college any longer-- they live at home while paying rent, and while in school lose time in which they would have been working.  In addition, they get far less grant aid because their institutional resources are lower. So once again, this unchecked assumption is wrong-- and the colleges themselves know it.  Madison College has billboards posted around Dane County pointing out that students at that college accrue less debt -- not no debt.  Since when should students have to borrow to attend a 2-year community institution?

I recognize that many in the political Right want the pending UW System tuition freeze for all the wrong reasons, seeking to starve the System into submission and eventual collapse, to force the end of the public sector.  I also recognize that the freeze will do some harm to the colleges and universities throughout the state, and that harm will be disproportionately distributed.  But what exactly happens depends in great part to the behavior of System and UW-Madison. The smart response would be to seize the opportunity to ensure that state spending is focused on instruction and distributed according to the needs of the students.  The money currently flows disproportionately to the least needy students and is budgeted defensively to support many activities aside from institution.  This must stop.

1. Downsize the administrations at most universities and most significantly at UW-Madison.

2. Ensure that UW-Madison does the lion's share of the belt-tightening while requiring that it provide wage increases to faculty and staff.  In other words, compel the institution to sacrifice on behalf of its sister institutions and ensure that instruction does not suffer. Find the units in which faculty are not teaching despite have substantial undergraduate enrollment and forbid any teaching releases not paid for with research dollars.  Increase the research "buyout" rate on all grants larger than $250,000.  Ensure that athletic programs either generate revenue for the campus-- and pass it along-- or close them. Etc.

3. Commission a task force to identify one UW comprehensive university to close and re-assign willing faculty and staff to online endeavors throughout the state.  Do this only after thorough analysis and consider of cost-effectiveness and geographic needs. 

4. Create an indirect cost incentive fund at 3-5 campuses to grow funding from research.

Again, etc.

I doubt any of this will happen because System will not act as the leader it needs to be, and because Madison will be allowed to retain greater power than any other higher education institution in the state, to the great detriment of the vast majority of students.   As a result, the freeze will be followed by a sizable tuition increase.  It shouldn't-- following the freeze, tuition should go up according to something like inflation or labor costs. Nothing more.

Actors on both sides seek to protect interests other than students.  All should be called out for it. A clear and intentional move to a goal of providing universally affordable postsecondary opportunities throughout Wisconsin is long overdue.