Archive for November, 2014

November 27, 2014

Poor economy and technology are causing millennials to drive less

by Grace

Although Thanksgiving auto travel this year is expected to be the heaviest since 2007, overall, driving is on a downward trend.

This chart shows that per-capita vehicle miles peaked in 2007, and the correlation of vehicle travel with economic growth is weakening.

Trends in Per-Capita Vehicle-Miles Traveled and Real Gross Domestic Product


For decades, economic growth and vehicle travel were closely correlated. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, economic growth and vehicle travel have diverged, suggesting a weakening link between the state of the economy and the number of miles Americans drive.

Millenials are driving less.

No age group has experienced a greater change in its driving habits than young Americans.

According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 and 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by 16 to 34 year-olds (a group that included a mix of Millennials and younger members of Generation X) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent…

The percentage of young people with a driver’s license has been dropping for years. In 2011, the percentage of 16 to 24 year-olds with driver’s licenses dipped to 67 percent—the lowest percentage since at least 1963.

Percentage of 16 to 24-Year-Olds with Driver’s Licenses


Technology has affected driving habits.

The recent recession no doubt reduced the number of miles young Americans drove, but the economy is clearly not the only factor at play. Members of the Millennial generation have expressed a greater willingness to pursue less auto-oriented lifestyles than previous generations, and have been the first to grow up with access to the mobile Internet-connected technologies that are reshaping society and how people connect with one another. These changes could be playing a role in the dramatic reduction in driving among young Americans.

Drive safely this Thanksgiving weekend.


Tony Dutzik, Frontier Group, Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, A New Direction Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, Spring 2013.

November 26, 2014

Choice of major is likely to be biggest determinant of student loan burden

by Grace

The Undergraduate Student Loan Calculator offered by the Hamilton Project allows you to illustrate what percentage of your future earnings are likely to go toward paying off your student loan.  Among other variables, you can select your major course of study.

Here’s an illustration comparing a petroleum engineering major with an ethnic studies major, showing a dramatic difference in outcomes, particularly in the first year after graduation.



The ethnic studies major starts out paying almost 26% of his earnings toward his student loans.

Year One:
Petroleum Engineer      Monthly Income: $3,816   Monthly Loan Payment: $277
Ethnic Studies              Monthly Income: $1,073   Monthly Loan Payment: $277

Income is based on the median earnings for that major.  The loan assumptions are based on average student debt of $26,500 as of 2012 and current federal student loan interest rate of 4.66%.

Run your own illustrations at the Hamilton Project site.

November 25, 2014

Student debt is top political issue

by Grace

Student debt relief is the top issue that Americans want Congress to address.

Student debt seems on its way to becoming a significant political issue, for better or worse. When a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked people about a long list of domestic and foreign policy proposals, none received more support – 82 percent – than reducing the cost of student loans. When the 2016 campaign gets underway, candidates will most likely come forth with various plans to address the issue.

Americans want politicians to solve this problem, an attitude that probably favors the Democratic agenda.

The midterms may have produced a Republican wave, but Americans tend to favor Democratic policy proposals. The three most popular agenda items in the latest Journal poll were: providing greater access to low-cost student loans and giving borrowers more time to pay off that debt; increasing spending on road and highway projects; and raising the minimum wage. And 52% of those polled said they wanted the government to do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people, compared with the 46% who want the government to do less. That’s a dramatic shift from October 2010, on the cusp of the last midterm.

I question the choice of issues offered by the survey, but clearly student debt is an important issue of concern for the American public.  It seems inevitable that taxpayers will continue to fund some type of student loan bailout schemes.

Related:  Is a student loan bailout inevitable?


David Leonhardt, “Student Debt: A Calculator Focused on College Majors”, New York Times, Nov. 20, 2014.

Patrick O’Connor, “5 Takeaways From The WSJ/NBC Post-midterms Poll”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 19, 2014.

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey, Date: November 14-17, 2014

November 24, 2014

German college students enjoy free tuition, but there’s a catch

by Grace

Business Insider explains “Why Germany’s Free College Education Is Actually Not That Great”.

Even though tuition is free, housing is very limited.  This leads to situations where “multiple students live in a single room”.

“This is far from luxury, of course,” Niclas Zumholte, a student in Heidelberg sharing a room with several others in emergency accommodation, told Inside Higher Ed.

It’s hard to generate too much sympathy, even though American students typically live in increasingly luxurious accommodations, commonly offering amenities like gyms, pools, and saunas.  Free tuition would seem to trump cushy housing, although maybe most Americans would disagree.

Interested Americans should know that while tuition is also free for international students, German schools are mostly quite selective and fluency in the German language is required.


Natasha Bertrand, “Why Germany’s Free College Education Is Actually Not That Great”, Business Insider, Nov. 19, 2014.

November 21, 2014

Which is more, 1/4 lb. or 1/3 lb.?

by Grace

Fast food fraction innumeracy

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

Knowing your fractions can make you a smarter consumer.


Kevin Drum, “The Great Third-Pound Burger Ripoff”, Mother Jones, Jul. 23, 2014.

November 20, 2014

Do ‘below-average’ people profit from college?

by Grace

Do below-average people profit from college?  Maybe.  But Daniel Oliver points out that federal student “loans encourage students to spend years at an institution from which many of them will derive no benefit”.  It’s a lose-lose situation.

… some people simply cannot profit from any college experience. We have to remember that, even in the fifth year of the reign of Obama, half of all students are below average.  If they go to college, they will spend their time, except during Sex Week, studying subjects and reading authors they have no particular interest in and insufficient training or sophistication to understand. Many of them would profit from learning a useful trade far more than from spending years at a college.

It would make more sense to require borrowers to qualify for student loans, maybe by using SAT scores or something similar.  This could create a win-win scenario — better decisions by individuals on post-secondary training and a stronger higher education system.


Daniel Oliver, “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Student Debt Has Got to Go!”, The Federalist, May 8, 2014.

November 19, 2014

Gainful employment rules are applied unequally to colleges

by Grace

The Obama administration’s new “gainful employment” regulations hold for-profit schools to higher standards, obligating their graduates to maintain minimum income-to-loan ratios not required from graduates of most non-profit and public colleges.

A million students may lose financial aid thanks to rules that don’t apply to public universities.

The gainful employment regulation were supposedly created to protect against “burdensome student loan debt”.

… This regulation prohibits students enrolled in programs at certain institutions of higher education—primarily for-profit institutions—from receiving federal student aid unless the program can show that their graduates’ annual loan payments do not exceed 20% of discretionary income, or 8% of total earnings.

But non-profit and public universities get a pass when their programs do not meet these same gainful employment rules.

… if you applied the regulation to a law degree from George Washington University, a bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration from Stephen F. Austin State University or a bachelor’s in social work from University of Texas, the programs would all fail to meet the standard.

According to Education Department data, if the regulation were fairly applied across all of higher education, 43% of graduates from public colleges and 56% from private nonprofit colleges would fail the department’s debt-to-earnings standard and their programs would lose access to federal financial aid. The Education Department gives these institutions a pass while coming down hard on students attending for-profit institutions.

Opponents of the new rules include minority Members of Congress, understandable since the penalized schools “educate a disproportionate number of poor and minority students”.

… the rule would “severely limit some students’ ability to use federal student aid at the college of their choice” and institutions “affected by this regulation predominantly serve lower-income students from nontraditional backgrounds.”

Protecting some colleges?  An argument could be made that some colleges are scamming students into believing their education will lead to a living wage, but it’s clear that argument would not be limited only to non-profit schools.  It seems the administration is propping up some scammers while coming down hard on others.


Steve Gunderson, “Making ‘Profit’ a Dirty Word in Higher Education”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2014.

“Disdainful Employment Rule”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2014.

November 18, 2014

American M.B.A. applicants suffering from weak math skills

by Grace

Weaker math skills are creating problems for America’s M.B.A. applicants.

New waves of Indians and Chinese are taking America’s business-school entrance exam, and that’s causing a big problem for America’s prospective M.B.A.s.

Why? The foreign students are much better at the test.

Asia-Pacific students have shown a mastery of the quantitative portion of the four-part Graduate Management Admission Test. That has skewed mean test scores upward, and vexed U.S. students, whose results are looking increasingly poor in comparison. In response, admissions officers at U.S. schools are seeking new ways of measurement, to make U.S. students look better.


The GMAT, administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council, is typically required to apply to M.B.A. programs, along with undergraduate transcripts, essay responses and letters of recommendation. Students at top programs like Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business have mean GMAT rankings around the 96th percentile.

Of the test’s four sections—writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal—admissions officers view results from the quantitative section as a key predictor of business school success.

One solution is to create lower standards for American students.

To address those concerns, GMAC in September introduced a benchmarking tool that allows admissions officers to compare applicants against their own cohort, filtering scores and percentile rankings by world region, country, gender and college grade-point average.


Lindsay Gellman, “On B-School Test, Americans Fail to Measure Up”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 5, 2014.

November 17, 2014

The value of A.P. classes

by Grace

The New York Times Motherlode blog asks the question, “To A.P. or Not to A.P”?

Students, parents, and school administrators have mixed feelings about A.P. classes.  Students sometimes feel pressured to take these advanced courses even when it’s not appropriate, but in many cases taking at least a few A.P. courses is the right decision.

When taught well, A.P. and I.B. courses can offer high school students the opportunity to study college-level material while in high school. Administrators and teachers may be divided on the merits of offering A.P. courses, but they agree that secondary schools feel pressure to offer them to appear academically rigorous.

A.P. courses usually look good on college applications.  Selective colleges want to know if students have taken the “the most rigorous academic program available”, so the natural inclination is to take as many A.P. classes as possible.  While some experts advise students that more is not necessarily better, it’s hard to believe that in a competitive situation more high A.P. scores will not add points on a college application.

… “Selective colleges make it clear these days that they will not consider candidates that have not done AP or IB.”…

Students and parents often blame the Ivy League and other selective colleges for perpetuating the current cutthroat environment, insofar as such schools advise taking “the most rigorous academic program available” (as stated on the University of Virginia’s admissions website).

“What parents are saying is that ‘until colleges change their message, I’m not going to let my kid be the sacrificial lamb,’ ” Pope observes.

But colleges say it’s the literal interpretation of this advice that gets students into trouble.

“What admission officers almost always say…is focus on what lights your fire and take advantage of the most challenging offerings in those areas,” urges NACAC’s Hawkins. “That’s a very different message from, ‘Take all of the AP classes.’ ”…

Why take A.P. courses?

A.P. courses can be the appropriately challenging level of study for advanced students, and a way to avoid being bored in classes that are too easy.

Students can earn college credit for A.P. courses when test scores are above a certain level.  This can save money and time, even enable graduation in less than four years.

In some cases colleges do not give credit, but use A.P. test scores to allow a student to skip over introductory classes.  This can be a benefit, but in some cases students should still take the lower-level college class.  For example, a STEM major may wish to take the college calculus course as a way to establish a stronger foundation for advanced course work.

Why avoid A.P. courses?

For some students, A.P. classes add excessive stress, either because of the extra work involved or because the student is not prepared to perform at the higher level.  In these cases, the lower-level course is the more appropriate placement.

There are borderline cases, where the question is whether it’s better to get an A in a regular college prep course or a lower grade in an A.P. course.

The answer that most colleges will give you is that, it’s better to get an A in the Honors/AP class.  Well, of course.  And most highly selective colleges will expect that you do.  But in reality, most colleges would rather see a B in an Honors or AP course.  They want to see that you are truly challenging yourself, but that you are still mastering the material….

The decision to take or skip A.P. courses is not always easy.  Consider it carefully.

ADDED:  Gas station without pumps blog gives commentary and advice on How many AP courses are too many?

Probably the most reasonable course is for students to take AP courses (and exams!) in those subjects that most interest them and pursue interests outside the AP classroom. Community college courses that go beyond the AP courses are also a cost-effective choice, if you can get in.


Jessica Lahey, “To A.P. or Not to A.P., That Is the Question”, New York Times, November 13, 2014.

Amy Brecount White, “Under Pressure”, Arlington Magazine, September-October 2014.

November 14, 2014

Homeschooling grows in NYC suburbs

by Grace

Concerned about peer pressure, testing and the Common Core, more parents explore home-schooling.

A Journal News analysis of state data found that Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties had a 31 percent increase of home-schooled students from 2005 (the earliest the state could provide data for) to 2013. Statewide, more than 20,000 students receive their primary instruction at home.

Westchester County, the one closest to New York City, experienced a 25% growth in homeschoolers.

Concern about Common Core Standards

Sylvia Diaz, coordinator of Tri-State Homeschoolers Association, which caters to home-schoolers in the New York metropolitan area, said she had seen an uptick in inquiries this year from parents concerned about the implementation of the Common Core education standards.

“It has wreaked havoc with a lot of parents, and they say their children are confused and anxious,” said the LaGrangeville resident.

Westchester County homeschoolers
Westchester County, one of the wealthiest and most highly taxed in the country,  is home to many highly regarded public schools.  Most Westchester homeschooling families live in those districts that report lower academic achievement levels.  Many older homeschooled students participate in the abundant selection of classes and activities offered in neighboring New York City.  Yonkers, which borders NYC, is particularly convenient for this purpose.



(Click graph to enlarge.)



Numbers for homeschooled students in more New York counties are available at this link.


Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy, “Opting out of the classroom: Parents explore home-schooling”,, November 10, 2014.

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