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De-escalating the Hype Around Elite Colleges

In pursuit of some ideas for stories recently, I began to peruse trend data issued by Pew Research, as I often do, to see if the data pointed the way to possible interesting topics. I was struck by a disturbing new statistic that the organization revealed: 61% of teens surveyed say they feel much pressure to get good grades. These pressures fuel a significant amount of unhealthy anxiety that teens experience. I initially pitched a story to The New York Times that would present some proactive ways to address this problem: providing guidance for parents on ways to de-stress the academic environment at home, to send the message that a child’s worth isn’t tied to their grades or test scores. My editor there steered me toward another subject she wanted to explore that I thought was interesting as well: a new paid Facebook group that provided the opportunity for parents to ask advice on college admissions and affordability directly to a panel of esteemed experts. She saw merit in trying to provide guidance to parents on how to find the best resources for navigating the complex college admissions process.

I was a week into reporting the story, appreciating a leisurely deadline, when the college admissions scandal broke. Suddenly, this piece became more urgent and I needed to quickly turn around this article that ran today. We decided to redirect the focus of the piece on what the average income person could do to avail themselves of resources that didn’t break the bank.

The not-rich are those who are most angry about the development that indicated money and privilege can buy admissions to the most elite colleges. But it seems worthwhile to take a pause to consider what the fuss is all about. Why do so many parents seem to care so much about getting their kid into the highest ranking schools? I find it astonishing that parents not only paid astronomical sums to get their kids into top colleges illegally, but that many drop hundreds of thousands of dollars through legal means. Since my children entered college, I have been shocked and dismayed at the value parents place on admission into a highly competitive school and how much they and students will invest — often borrowing vast sums of money that will take years to repay — to do so. I’m the parent of young adults who have attended both public and private schools and am a journalism instructor at my Alma mater, the University of Michigan. I’ve learned that college is what you make it and that you can easily succeed without attending an elite institution. I have consistently seen hard working students hustle to get internships and juggle paying for college with academics become shining stars in the professional world once they graduate.

But private schools continue to capitalize on the value that so many wealthy parents continue to place on their schools, relentlessly raising tuition. Duke University, where my daughter is a senior, did it again. Next year the cost will be $73,000 a year. Duke has plenty of company in its Ivy League colleagues, which now have similar price tags. Despite the skyrocketing tuition costs, these colleges continue to see an increase in the number of applicants. Undaunted, they’re the fortunate beneficiary of the college admissions hysteria machine. I continue to wonder what the tipping point will be for the many middle income families who are eager to give their children the benefit of this type of education. Will it be $80,000? $100,000?

Just as students shouldn’t be defined by their academic record and test scores in high school, parents shouldn’t equate their value with the type of school that admits them. You are not where you go to college. An elite college education is not a guaranteed golden ticket to success or happiness. If more parents realized that, perhaps it could help take the anxiety down a notch that students are feeling in high school. Parents may feel less compelled to put so much money toward getting them in to the most competitive — and pricey — schools. And they may find their children do just fine regardless of the college they attend. Then maybe fewer applicants will flock to the elite, pricey schools; these schools may finally feel the pinch and stop raising tuition. Of course, that’s just a pipe dream. But even if a version of this change in mindset comes to fruition, it could insert some much needed sanity into the process, benefiting both parents and students.

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Environmental Journalists Touch Down in Flint

As a founding member of The Society of Environmental Journalists, a group dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of environmental coverage, I always look forward to attending the annual conference. This year, environmental justice was the theme, as the annual conference was held in Flint, Michigan, home to the catastrophic lead in water crisis. The kick off speaker was Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who persevered in bringing the flagrant violations to the attention of the public. She’s the author of the new book, What the Eyes Don’t See. In her presentation, Hanna-Attisha thanked the media. She said were it not for enterprising journalists who alerted the public to her findings, the world may never have learned about the horrors occurring in Flint. It’s gratifying to hear of the impact of the work of my fellow journalists. As I spent a few days mingling with my colleagues, I am continually inspired by the tenacity of individuals who are committed to uncovering complex environmental problems. Many journey to dangerous countries, risking their lives to find their stories; others find similarly precarious situations at home during an era where journalists are often disrespected. Some of that tension was evident in an exchange between two other speakers: Eric Lipton of The New York Times and Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly with the Trump EPA. The conversation grew tense as Holmstead challenged Lipton about his portrayal of the administration and Lipton vigorously defended his story. These conferences always energize me and give me fresh ideas for articles. I led a Future of Mobility tour, taking 30 journalists to a test track for self-driving cars where we got to experience a ride in a driverless shuttle that is already operating on the University of Michigan campus — clearly a glimpse into what the future could look like. I moderated a panel on how to freelance and not go broke, which was well attended. When SEJ launched, few were freelancers. Now, with newspapers downsizing, they make up a significant constituency of the organization. It was exciting to see roughly 500 people gather for this conference to network, exchange ideas and learn. During a time of onslaught for journalists, SEJ provides crucial support and resources. I’m pleased the organization continues to thrive.

New Publication Focuses on Tips for Boomers

When you’re in your fifties and sixties — as so much of the population is — there are many daunting issues to face. Whether it’s helping to launch your young adults, caring for aging parents, saving for retirement or staying healthy, there’s so much to stay on top of. I’ve enjoyed having the chance to be one of the debut writers for a new publication, Considerable, that is taking an optimistic view of the road ahead. Here’s some information on their purpose and goal from the Editorial Director, Diane Harris, who formerly was Editor in Chief of MONEY. My first article for the website focused on a persistent problem among many siblings: tensions that arise in caring for an older parent. I got the idea for this story from observing some friends go through this. I thought it was important to provide advice on how to head off disputes during what is already an emotionally-plagued time. The most recent piece I wrote for Considerable provides new tools for adult children having to navigate their parents’ finances. I know that, at some point, my siblings and I may find ourselves in this situation and I may very well consider one of these apps to simplify and manage the process in a secure way. It’s always great to see a new publication arise to tackle so many important issues. I look forward to continuing to contribute to Considerable and hope many of you will check it out.

 

 

Inspirational Stories From Aging Boomers

One of my favorite writing gigs is providing the “Second Act” stories to The Wall Street Journal’s Encore section twice a year. Second Acts focus on those who find a new passion in their fifty-plus years — be it a career or full-time hobby or avocation. I feel privileged to be able to share the journeys of such a disparate group of people.  In the April 23rd edition, I was pleased to have written four articles. I was moved to hear about how an owner of an investment firm decided to open up a chocolate shop to employ disabled workers. There was also a physical therapist who decided to become a whitewater rafting guide, a teacher who launched a nonprofit to generate enthusiasm for the STEM fields in girls and a marketing executive who spends her retirement years traveling the world inexpensively by house sitting. Interviewing these types of individuals gives me hope that there are many exciting ways to spend one’s later years, provided, of course that you remain healthy. I’m sure that the zeal they have for these new pursuits helps to keep them both physically and emotionally healthy as well. I was just as intrigued by another story I told in the most recent Encore issue: a mission of developers of 55 plus active living  communities to build eco-friendly residences. They found that older adults crave environmentally sustainable living, partly because it’s economical as well. I look forward to continuing my coverage of the ways older adults are embarking on their senior years with great enthusiasm and joy. I’m always looking for Second Act candidates, so if you know of anyone who has made an interesting late-in-life career switch, please contact me!

 

Where Technology Offers An Upside

Technology has recently taken a beating. Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify this week about Facebook’s privacy practices — concerns that have sent the stock reeling. Our reliance on instantaneous communication and impersonal devices has been blamed for epidemic increases in mental health problems among young people. But there’s one area where technology is being viewed as a breakthrough: the advances it will bring to the fast growing elderly population. It’s been a busy week, so I’m just now getting around to debriefing on the What’s Next Boomer Summit  I attended last month in San Francisco. In its 15th year, it’s the brainchild of Mary Furlong, an entrepreneur considered the “godmother” to those who are developing products aimed at improving the quality of life for older Americans. At this most recent gathering, I got a view of a variety of promising innovations. Apps have been developed for areas where they’re most desperately needed, like protecting the financial assets of the elderly. As AARP finds the majority of older Americans seek to remain in their homes as they age, there are a plethora of interactive technologies underway to help them. Robotics is ushering in an era that will allow not just supervision for older people, but socialization. As we take stock of the negative repercussions of technology, it’s uplifting to see the positive role it could ultimately play in improving the quality of life of aging Americans, who will soon comprise the majority; nearly one in five U.S. residents will be age 65 or older by 2030. Along those lines of living a fulfilling life, I write articles for The Wall Street Journal focused on those who switch to interesting new careers after 50. I’m always on the hunt for the next round of inspirational stories, so please contact me if you or someone you know would like to be featured.

What’s Better, Public or Private School? The Answer: Both

When the Atlantic’s education editor asked me to pursue an article focused on private vs. public education systems, I didn’t hesitate. The assignment was intriguing. The Atlantic was launching a series called, “Moonshots,” where editors posted hypothetical questions that journalists would investigate. My article must answer the questions: What if all students were required to attend public school? And the contrary: What if all students were required to attend private school? The idea was to facilitate a conversation that would lead to insights on what makes for the best educational experience. I spent much of August researching the issue, speaking with leading educational experts, those working for both liberal and conservative think tanks, teachers, parents and students. The result was this article.  

As the child of a public school teacher — my mother taught high school English in the Detroit Public Schools for 35 years — and as the sister of a middle school language arts public school teacher, I admit that I had some preconceived assumptions about private schools: that they catered to elite, affluent, mostly white students. But in the course of speaking to those on every part of the education spectrum, I learned that private schools are often more diverse than their surrounding public schools. Wealthy school districts are usually equated with pricey real estate that only the affluent can afford. This means that these districts are often have far less socioeconomic diversity than in private schools, where the school has the ability to ensure a diverse population of students. That’s not to say that private schools are perfect. Administrators can be far more selective and potentially discriminatory; they may not take in those with disabilities or other special needs. Large public schools turn away no one. And they’re often are able to offer a vastly more comprehensive curriculum, as well as a plethora of extracurricular activities.

What I took away from this fascinating exploration of our education institutions is that, in pitting private schools and charter “schools of choice” against public schools, we haven’t taken the time to focus on what each has to offer to students. Each system has its drawbacks. But if we would consider more the strengths of each type of learning environment, we could learn a lot about how to improve today’s systems — ultimately creating a far stronger educational system for our students.    

The Anguish of Covering Teen Suicide in a Small Town

When deciding what articles to pursue, I often look to compelling statistics to find the story. And the following statistics shocked me. In 2010, there were 1,182 deaths by suicide among those ages 15 to 18; that number jumped to 1,458 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Two years ago, a CDC survey found that nearly 18 percent of high school students had seriously considered suicide in the previous twelve months. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people and it’s hit the area where I live hard. During the past academic year, our small community lost three young people to suicide. It would be easier to feel the sorrow and not probe this sensitive topic. It would be easier not to pester the grieving parents and have to ask them to relive the memories of their loved one. In other words, it would be easier to shy away from covering suicides. But avoiding the topic altogether has not proven helpful. Research shows that writing about teen suicide does not encourage more teens to take their lives. In fact, the data argues that awareness of the problem can lead to solutions and outreach and providing the help that our young people so desperately need. So I wrote my third article on the topic, this time for The Ann Arbor Observer.  (I previously wrote an article for Good Housekeeping and another for The Michigan Alumnus. ) I’m grateful that the Roberts family understands the importance of spreading awareness on teen suicide and so bravely sat down with me to reminisce about their precious son. The reaction from the community to the piece has been extremely positive. Those who have been hit hard by suicides of young people all seem to realize that discussing this — not sweeping it under the rug as if it never happened — is key in addressing this epidemic. I hope there will be inroads and that I won’t have to write about this painful subject any time soon. But if there is another tragedy, I will not hesitate to confront the topic again. It’s something that any responsible member of the media should do.