Saturday, June 14, 2008

Do children still need college?

image At high school graduation, the principal proudly read the statistics about where the graduates were headed after the summer. A third were going on to four year colleges and universities. 14% will attend to two-year colleges; 7% are going to vocational or trade schools. And the remainder, 36%, had chosen "Ministries and missions, military, travel, time-off, or undecided".

It's been a buzz among parents for the last few days: 36% seems remarkably high. I don't know what the trend is, or how it compares to other regions of the US or Western Europe, but I would have expected the number to be less than half of that.

What's happening?

Economics could play a role: college is unbelievably expensive. Four-year expenses at a private university cost a family a quarter-million dollars; state schools run about half that amount. But Woodinville is fairly well-off, and most families use savings or home equity, supplemented by student loans and small scholarships. Someone suggested that, with Microsoft nearby, maybe we were too well-off: the trust fund children didn't need schools or jobs. 'maybe in isolated cases, but not 160 children.

Dori, the commencement speaker, made the observation that a 3.6 grade point average (out of 4.0) is only good enough to get onto the waiting list at the University of Washington, a state school. The level of competition for limited openings is intense, and many kids may just drop out of the race along the way. But then I would have expected the numbers for two-year and vocational schools to be higher.

I think that the answer lies with a qualitative shift in how kids view the value of college. I've heard two arguments against it.

Skills learned in school are not relevant to later careers. Core classes, taken during the first two years, broadly encompass general education requirements. Students struggle with topics that don't interest them, that they aren't good at, or that teach skills that they will never use. It has a double effect, since poor performance may deny them entry to upper-level specialized programs.

The college degree no longer has value. Look at all of the graduates who are taking entry-level jobs that they could have gotten without the four-year investment. Surely it would make more sense to enter the market immediately and to have the experience instead. And the schools themselves have been rebranding as lifestyle choices, softening the academic message in favor of their social communities and scenic locations.

I suspect that parents with marginal economic means or free-market social outlooks will not push back when their child says that they aren't interested or don't feel ready for college.

Whatever the reason, I am concerned about the statistic.

Because, yes, children need college.

Education is still the only path to acquire the skills needed for today's careers. Few careers have entry paths through training and apprenticeship: kids cannot work their way up from unskilled positions into marketing, engineering, or finance roles. Universities further provide a diverse academic environment where interests can be explored and future paths chosen.

Colleges provide a transitional environment bridging home and independent adult life. The social circle gained through dormitory life and campus activities form your first network of diverse and close relationships beyond your home town.

I've watched my kids, and others, struggle to get an economic foothold via a string of entry-level jobs, further trying to make time to grow a social life while living at home and working 50 hours a week.

Paths around continued education are much more difficult to manage, and success is much less assured. I do think that we need to understand why a the third of the graduating class makes the choice to turn away from continued education, and either support an alternative or change the perceptions that motivate it.

Photo credit WWU via

U.S. economic tides

  The price of gasoline passed $4.50 per gallon this weekend.  It isn't much compared to the price in Europe (around $10 per gallon now), but it's up significantly from roughly $2.50 last winter.  Recent articles in the business press have noted that this historic rise has had remarkably little effect on the economy, speculating that the country is more diversified and less dependent on oil than it once was.  Bad new is actually good news.

  However, talking with friends and colleagues here, I think that the potential inflationary effects on large-scale markets and the small-scale impact on individual households are both being understated.  Businesses and people are hurting and worried.

The price of food and gasoline is the main topic of conversation when people talk about jobs and households.  These are basic needs, so we all shift spending to cover these expenses first.  Our incomes are not rising: raises will probably average less than 4% this year, far below the perceived rate of price increases.  Nobody has found a way to generate additional income through savings or investment: the stock market is down, interest rates are low (2-3%), and real estate investments are losing value (down 5% in our area).

  This, in turn, leads to reduced spending on everything else: people are putting off purchases of clothes and home furnishings, delaying home repairs and car replacements, and cutting back on vacation plans and discretionary purchases.  Debt repayment doesn't seem to be a big worry here: I haven't found distress sales or other signs of economic stress around the neighborhood.  Still, there is no opportunity to borrow cheaply against assets such as homes or property to support spending: the cost of loans and credit lines is 6-9%; credit cards are at 9-15%.

  Everyone realizes that if fuel, food, and shipping costs continue to rise, and consumer spending keeps falling, it must put pressure on businesses, on revenue, on margins, on profits.  This will further impact wages and layoffs as companies try to scale down to meet reduced demand, yet still preserve profits.  The potential for a serious downward spiral seems to be there, and few people talk optimistically about their household budgets in the future.

  They are casting about for who is at fault.  Government comes in for its share of blame: everyone feels the weight of taxes and nobody believes that they get value in return.  The cost of the Iraq war, the proliferation of unnecessary federal projects, and perceptions of wasteful spending on transportation improvements are all cited as examples.  People also grumble about speculators: there is a sense that financial and commodity companies are making windfall profits, while brokers and bankers are evading accountability.  Income disparity and executive pay don't seem to be big issues with most people, and transfer payments to the elderly, impoverished, and unemployed are not yet topics outside of talk radio.

  Faced with all of this, everyone seems to be holding their breath, worrying about how bad it might get, while hoping that there will be a natural rebound, yet again.  At some point they will decide, left or right, what direction the future will take. But at the moment, everyone seems to be experiencing watchful anxiety and a maintaining a conservative approach to family spending.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Last one down the aisle

DSC08200 Stitch

My daughter graduated high school last night; she's the youngest, and so this was a milestone evening.

DSC08227a There were 400 graduates; each got introduced to receive their diploma, and it was great to see Laura cross the stage, beaming, and get a quick hug from the principal. She's worked hard and done well, achieved a solid GPA, stayed out of trouble, and became a confident and self-assured adult. She'll do great.

The commencement address was given by a local radio talk show host, Dori Monson. He did a credible job, keeping it short and maintaining focus on the graduates. His theme was "Lessons for a life well lived" and he had four recommendations: Take control of your own life, Be competitive, Set explicit goals, and Surround yourself with good people. His second point seemed overstated, though. I agree that there are no prizes for second place when competing for a job or an account, so you have to be prepared to work harder than the next guy. At the same time, working smarter, working cooperatively, and keeping a balanced perspective are also important and straight social darwinism is a recipe for stress and disappointment.

DSC08235 As a parent, it's a funny feeling. On the one hand, it's a culmination and recognition of everything we've done together as a family during the past 20 years, and I am proud and happy. On the other, it's over: Will reports for the service in a few weeks, Laura for college soon after, and a new phase of life begins. It's almost wholly undetermined right now: what I will work at, where I will live, what pastimes to pursue, what relationship to nuture. When children were in the house, they were taken into account in all of those decisions. Now it's simpler.

Anyway, it's certainly a time for celebrating and looking forward to all of our futures!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

U.S. political winds

'back in Seattle for the week: it's cold and rainy here, almost more like January than June.  The snow level is down to 3000 ft, which is causing unseasonable blizzards at the Cascade Mountain passes and frigid, gusting winds here in the lowlands.  My daughter graduates High School this evening: I visited a friend last night to share a celebratory single-malt and laugh about stories of our daughters' growing up.  As my mother always said, we forget the bad times and remember the good. Thankfully.

The past few days, as I've visited with family and friends, watched and listened to the media, I'm getting back in sync with the mood here in the US.  It's been six months since my last visit, and it's always a jump to catch up to where conversations and opinions have evolved.

The main topic is still the US presidential campaign: the primaries are finally over, and nobody seems very happy with the outcome.  John McCain, the Republican nominee, is widely seen by liberals as a second incarnation of George Bush, and by conservatives as a candidate who doesn't truly support their causes.  People admire his patriotism, integrity, and conviction, but say that his policies are badly out of step with their war-weariness and economic difficulties. The radio pundits hammer him mercilessly, others say that he may appeal to the Hillary's lunchbucket voters, but I don't find any of them willing to vote for him.

The women who backed Hillary are deeply disappointed and disillusioned.  They seem frustrated most by the unfairness of it all: she offered so much, was so close, and didn't deserve the outcome.  My mother gets tears in her eyes talking about the concession speech last week: many women I talk with similarly felt related to Hillary's candidacy even though they disagreed with her on issues.  It's been hard for them to watch her struggle and they are proud that she left with dry-eyed dignity.

Obama worries people that I talk with.  Friends have moved past the first telegenic impressions of a fresh face offering real change, and now they are asking what an Obama presidency will really mean.  Is he experienced enough, connected enough, to get things done? Is he a smart person who will be paralyzed when confronted by the world's gritty reality?  People refer back to the example of Jimmy Carter, also elected for many of the same qualities of optimism and book-smarts, but who ended his term with a never-ending hostage crisis, withdrawal from the Olympics, and a darkened Christmas tree.

There are no Bush defenders left anywhere across the political spectrum, not one.  Everyone feels embarrassed by the ignorance and betrayed by the actions; they just hope that they can ignore him for a last few months.  The core political question in this election year will be whether the US takes a short or a long step away from Bush's policies. Either way, the era will end, discredited.

Finally, and with justification. 

Everywhere, there is good, level-headed discussion of issues and alternatives, not shrill accusations around superficial distractions.  Attack ads have been swiftly countered: nobody will be "Swift-Boated" this year.  However, in response to the questions I hear being raised, Obama needs to reassure people worried about his inexperience, working-class empathy, and ethnic loyalties; McCain needs to answer questions of age and of specifically how he would change Bush's policies.

The Dutch forever ask who I think will win: I believe that Obama is likely to take the popular vote by a wide margin.  The electoral vote will, unfortunately, be much closer, especially if more manipulation of uncertainty in the results takes place, as happened in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004.  People are already losing faith in the integrity of the electoral system,and it would be seriously bad if lawyers and political operatives step in to decide the result for a third time.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The great Alsace flood

  After a day exploring the Route du Vins, the setting sun and rumbling stomachs signal that it's time to consult the maps to think about where to spend the night.  It's early in the season, and we were confident that most of the inns and hotels weren't filled and that we could negotiate a good price on a nice room.  Riquewihr looked attractive: an old double-walled village nestled into the Alsace foothills, quiet and picturesque and back from the main road.

h - Alsace - Riquewihr 40 l-oriel 15

   It turned out to be a delightful small town.  The cobbled main street was almost too Disney-cute, lined with colorful, half-timbered buildings, restaurants, and shops.  Cartoonish stork-symbols graced every sign.  But slightly off that path were narrower streets with more appealing residences, stores, and taverns.  We found a cozy inn willing to negotiate half-off for a loft room with a nice cross-breeze, perfect for the evening, h - Alsace - Riquewihr 25and were directed to a local Alsatian cafe set back into the older quarter.  Perfect: regional food, knowledgeable waiters, and a local crowd, well away from the tour-bus hoards photographing the showcase shops.  The twilight arrived, the candles were lit, and murmurs of conversation rose over Muscat and tarte flambe (a brick oven pizza appetizer).

  As the main course arrived, the waiters started opening awnings, anticipating the evening rain drifting in from the mountains.  However, the drizzle quickly intensified to pounding rain. The rising wind forced everyone towards the center of the restaurant, then indoors through a cascade of water over the entryway. Lightning and thunder heralded the most intense downpour I've seen in ages.  Civil sirens came to life in the distance, and the waiters dashed out of the restaurant, saying that "the forest was entering the town".  Clearly, not the typical summer shower.

  h - Alsace - Riquewihr 31 h - Alsace - Riquewihr 34

   We headed back to the hotel through streets right out of "Singing in the Rain": water cascaded from every building, sheets of rain obscuring our view of storefronts just across the street. Torrents of muddy water rushed down the main street, bursting against parked cars and splashing against the walls.  I waded through a calf-deep river, cobblestones like stepping-stones beneath the wash.  Basement restaurants started to flood, people were laying boards to get across the sudden waterways.  It was just an amazing scene, transformed so quickly from a peaceful evening to 'rage of nature' spectacle.

h - Alsace - Riquewihr 29h - Alsace - Riquewihr 30

  The next day, the storm's damage was more apparent.  The town walls had stood for a thousand years and shouldered worse burdens, but the wash of debris on the streets showed that there had been some subsidence of the hills into the village.i - Alsace - Mittelwiher wine visit 10  The flood  had turned the fountain muddy; passing vehicles popped loose stones from beneath their tires, peppering buildings and bystanders with shotgunned debris.  The shopkeepers pushed mud off their floors and snags away from their doorways, while others gathered to point and gesture to where the water had swept through their businesses.

  Outside of town, the vinyards looked unaffected, but the roads had crumbled and washed away in places.  The police were trying to move the worst of the rubble from the roads and to piece together continuous routes through it all:  signs everywhere warned of blockages and detours.

h - Alsace - Riquewihr countryside 07 h - Alsace - Riquewihr countryside 04  h - Alsace - Riquewihr countryside 06  h - Alsace - Riquewihr countryside 05

  It was really a contrast to the day before although, surprisingly, not one that made the news.  Only the local papers and broadcasts carried any pictures or accounts of the storm.  Their accounts were very practical: upbeat assessments of the damage and assurances that the grapes and wineries were unaffected.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A few pictures from Alsace

d - Alsace - Sainte Odile 01

On the road visiting parents in Boulder and family in Seattle this week, so I'm logging lots of hours on the plane and catching up as long as the computer battery holds out.

One of the things I wanted to finish was to get the pictures sorted from Strasbourg and Alsace and posted on Flickr.  The region is a thorough mix of France and Germany: the language is French, but the food tends towards a sauerkraut mountain served with five kinds of sausage.  The wines and chateaus in the countryside are very French; the canalside cafe's in Strasbourg are very German.  It's not a large region, and two days exploration driving the Route du Vin gives a good understanding of the area.

And don't miss the storks: the wild birds have been re-introduced into the region, and their nesting frames can be spotted on steeples high above many of the towns.

f3 - Alsace - Ribeauville 6

h - Alsace - Riquewihr 06 h - Alsace - Riquewihr  55

h - Alsace - Riquewihr 18 d - Alsace - Sainte Odile 16

 g - Alsace - Saint Hippolyte 14 i - Alsace - Mittelwiher wine visit 04

g - Alsace - Berghein countryside 03