How Much Did Your College Diploma Cost?

Acceptance into one of the top institutions of higher education in the United States epitomizes the American Dream of opportunity, and is something that kids (and parents) start dreaming about as early as preschool. Here in New York City, the competition is fierce to get into selective public and private high schools that will prepare students for admission into the coveted Ivy League, and many parents see preschool choice as the first step to reserving one of those spots.

And these preschool spots don’t come cheap either. Riverdale Counry School admits 16 students per year into its Prekindergarten class and carries an annual price tag that is more than most colleges at $43,600. Another popular selective city school, Horace Mann, falls not far behind at $41,150 per year. And financial aid is hard to come by, so family income plays a large part in a kid’s ability to attend, even if they are selected.

As children get older, there are more and more ways in which the wealthiest families can access resources and services that will give their kids a leg up when it comes to college admissions. Individual experiences like private music and dance lessons, community service projects, and interesting travel opportunities can contribute to a kid’s overall profile and help them to present as well-rounded and worldly. But high school and college admissions processes bring a whole new slue of possible costs.

Here in New York City, students who wish to attend a selective public high school (like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, two of the best) need to take the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) and do pretty well on it. (Only 3.4% of test-takers were admitted to Stuyvesant in 2013.) Kaplan offers a range of options for SHSAT prep classes that can run a family up to $3000. Costly, but not quite as much as four more years at their elite private school.

Then, once students enter high school, the college admissions process truly starts. Students and families spend countless hours of their high school years writing and editing personal statements, researching and ranking college preferences, visiting schools, requesting letters of recommendation, preparing resumes, and interviewing with admissions representatives. This process costs a fair bit of money for any family in the form of application fees at each school (this ranges from $50-$100 per school) and the cost of college visits (if possible). But some families are investing significantly more by hiring costly private counselors to support the admissions process. A private counselor may offer packages ranging from comprehensive four year programs to a weekend-long boot camp, but with hefty price tags – in some cases the extra support will run a family $10,000 – $40,000 per student.

And this is all for the hopes of being accepted into one of the most expensive schools in the country. Last year’s Top 10 Most Expensive Colleges included two of the Ivies, with Columbia University priced at $63,340 per year and Dartmouth College at $61,927 per year. The others are not far behind.

So let’s do a little basic math. Imagine your student starts out at a $40K/year private school in Prekindergarten and attends through high school graduation. That alone will cost your family $560K in tuition. Add in $30K in private college counseling and $10K in college visits and tours, and you’ve spent over half a million dollars before they have even arrived at school. Throw in the $60K/year tuition for four years, as well as ongoing monetary support for travel, books, and essentials, and you’ve now spent nearly a million dollars for that diploma framed on the wall. Is it worth it?

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Spring Is Here – Are You Choosing the Right College?

The first day of spring is upon us, and excitement is in the air! All around the country, people are anxiously awaiting the arrival of warmer weather (although it is snowing today in NYC), and high school students are starting to frantically check their mailboxes for college acceptance letters. While early decision and early action applicants – a small subset –  may have solidified their college plans in November or December, the majority of students apply regular decision and should be learning of their admissions decisions between late March and mid April.

But even thought many of the tough decisions are now in the past – ACT and SAT preparation, AP tests, gathering recommendations, and preparing personal statements – some of the most critical are still ahead. Assuming they have applied to several schools (the College Board recommends five to eight), students may be lucky enough  to have a difficult choice to make about which school to attend. And there is a lot of pressure to choose the right one.

With so many factors to consider, it is easy for teenagers to get caught in the trap of focusing on the wrong things. Many aspects of the college choice may be important to a student and his or her family including campus visits, location, academics, extracurricular activities, and finances. However, it may also be tempting to consider other factors that aren’t as indicative of long-term success like social relationships, partying, sports team fan-dom, relying on reputation alone, or rebelling against parents’ wishes. But the folks who are in the greatest danger of choosing incorrectly are kids from low-income families, simply because they lack the resources or information to make the very best decision.

Unfortunately, by the time the acceptances arrive, many low-income students may have already limited their choices by not applying to more selective schools that could have been a good fit. This study suggests that there is a vast information gap between high achieving kids that come from low-income backgrounds and their higher-income peers. Misconceptions about cost are at the top of the list; many students and families see the price of a highly selective school and are scared away, when in reality they would be likely to receive a fair amount of financial aid that could actually reduce the price of that school to at or below some of their other options. The study also uncovered other important areas where students seemed to be misinformed, including college majors and academic offerings at different schools as well as vastly different graduation rates.

For example, if I am a high-achieving low-income student living in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, it might be easy to misunderstand the difference between attending CUNY-City College and attending New York University (NYU). The CUNY school, with an in-state tuition of just $6440 per year, may seem appealing compared to the $46,170 price tag of NYU. However, over half of the students at NYU receive some type of need-based financial aid, and are far more likely to graduate on time with a 77% four year graduation rate (compared with CUNY’s 9% four year rate). And if my parents didn’t attend college, it will be difficult for them to understand the difference too, putting me at even more of a disadvantage.

So even as we work tirelessly to close the achievement gap between poor students compared with their higher-income, we must also focus on the information gap. Every student deserves access to a quality education that will allow them to compete to enter schools like NYU; but every student also deserves access to the knowledge and information that will help them choose the college where they will have the greatest chance of success.


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Teens Rejoice and Teachers Lament: Cell Phones Back in Schools

cell_phoneEarlier this month, New York City public school students started bringing their cell phones to school with them – for the first time in years. There has been a city-wide ban on cell phones dating back to a policy Mayor Michael Bloomberg instated in 1988. The ban has been met with increasing resistance in recent years, including a lawsuit filed against the New York City Department of Education in 2006, and was included as a part of the current mayor’s platform when he built his campaign in 2013. Mayor Bill de Blasio finally announced a lift on the ban once and for all this past January, indicating that students would be able to return cell phones to schools beginning March 2nd.

But even after years of protest to allow cell phones again, the new policy has been met with a mix of reactions as schools consider how to enforce both safety and focus within the new rules.

Safety Concerns: Many parents and school officials argued that the ban on cell phones impeded the safety of their kids by not allowing them access to a cell phone to communicate with their parents on their way to and from school (and sometimes during, although this article reminds us there is no need for that). The 2006 lawsuit even argued that this interference was unconstitutional on the basis of inhibiting a parent’s ability to be responsible for their child’s well-being. To combat these concerns, many schools found ways to alter the ban within their own buildings by allowing students to bring cell phones to and from school but hand them in at the beginning of the day or store them in lockers. This issue even caused the popup of small businesses in the form of paid cell phone storage services for students to leave their devices while they were at school.

Technological Advancement: The argument concerning technological advancement stands to both support and undermine the need to ban cell phones in schools. On the one hand, technology is becoming increasingly important in modern society, and some schools claim that allowing cell phones to be used appropriately in the classroom will contribute to students’ long-term success in the information age. On the other hand, many also argue that students’ lives are already so inundated with technology that it may be impeding their ability to form face to face relationships with peers and adults.

Classroom Management: There is no doubt that the presence of cell phones around schools will create the possibility of distraction, cheating, reduced focus in class, and all around classroom management issues for teachers. In many charter schools, a strict “no cell phones in the classroom” policy (see the “Cell Phone” section of this Uncommon Schools Student and Family Handbook) forces students to keep cell phones turned off in their book bags during the school day to avoid such distractions while still allowing kids to communicate with family members on their commute to and from school.

Inequity: An unintended consequence of lifting the cell phone ban is possibly the return of an additional layer of inequity to the city’s classrooms – i.e. allowing students to carry around and show off their cell phones highlights and draws attention to the students whose families can’t or won’t provide them with one. This can become just another version of comparing sneakers to see who has the coolest new Jordans.

The truth is, no matter what the policy, kids will find a way to bring their devices to school and hide them if they can. And if they can’t, they’ll pay a dollar a day to store them in a truck near the school. So whether schools believe they are a useful addition to the classroom or not is really up to them now, but the key is to establish very clear and enforceable policies on their use – as the list of devices grows by the day.

Ultimately, cell phones are here to stay – whether we ban them or not.

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Are We Ready to #RaceTogether?

racetogetherPeople are buzzing as they sip their Venti cups of coffee this morning – and today it’s about more than just a caffeine fix. Starbucks announced this week a new media campaign focused on the topic of race relations. The #RaceTogether initiative promotes the idea of baristas leading open conversations about race while serving up their customers’ morning lattes.

Although CEO Howard Schultz claims the plan has been in the works since December, the announcement was met with a fair bit of criticism; some are suggesting that Starbucks needs to first evaluate its own company model which seems to cater to a majority white population, and others are saying that baristas should receive higher wages if they are going to be expected to lead such difficult and personal conversations with customers.

The whole thing has sparked a lot of interesting discussion about the “right” time and place to talk about such a hot button issue. And this campaign comes at the heels of a pretty heated time for race relations in the United States as it is. After months of talk about race in our criminal justice system, President Obama proclaimed “Selma is now” just before a historic visit to Selma, Alabama to commemorate Bloody Sunday 50 years later. And even in our nation’s college towns, where our kids are going to get an education and prepare for their future as contributors to society, there are fraternities shouting racist chants and even more police shootings said to be racially motivated. It’s no wonder that even Starbucks has identified the need to address these issues.

But the only way to truly transform the way our nation sees and talks about race is to start with the rising generation and work our way up. We must address race and segregation in schools. Even here in New York City, said to be a melting pot of international cultures, schools are among the most segregated in the country.

However, the work to desegregate schools cannot be done  by schools alone, but will take efforts from city planners and elected officials to work simultaneously on issues of transportation, housing, gentrification, and poverty. Say what you want about the #RaceTogether campaign, but it’s going to take more than a few conversations over our morning lattes to make real change in how our country sees and talks about race. And it starts in the classroom.


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“Going Green” This St. Patrick’s Day

Today all around New York City, kids are dressed in green and eating Lucky Charms to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Later this evening, the adults will partake in celebrations filled with beer dyed green and silly leprechaun hats. But there may be another way to show our love for the color green this holiday week.

Many schools across the country — today and recently — have started “green” initiatives to reduce waste and increase the sustainability of their programming. In New York specifically, the National Wildlife Federation partners with schools in an Eco-Schools Program that supports individual schools to plan and execute sustainable projects and initiatives within the context of their environment.

The website also highlights places where schools need support in the form of monetary donations and volunteers to complete their dream projects.  For instance, the High School for Public Service recently raised the funds to create The Youth Farm, which serves as an outdoor classroom for the school as well as an agricultural centerpiece of the central Brooklyn community. At P.S. 32 in Downtown Brooklyn, the school team raised the funds to create and implement a school-wide recycling initiative to meet city mandates as well as increase awareness of sustainable waste practices in their school community. Individual schools can also register to join the Eco-Schools Community and receive additional support and resources for executing similar programs in their locations.

In select cases, schools have taken the “go green” mantra and turned it into a key part of the underlying mission of their school. At the Brooklyn Urban Garden School, middle school students in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn work together to collectively care for the school’s garden as a central part of the curriculum. At Growing Up Green Charter School in Queens, being “green” is a central part of the school’s identity and educational model — and includes gardening, composting, recycling, organic uniforms, energy efficiency, and a partnership with Solar One, to name a few components.

As our students get older and matriculate into society, a “green” education stands to benefit them in a number of ways. As Earth’s limited natural resources dwindle, there will be increasing demand for environmentally conscious scientists to improve efficiency and utilize technology to develop innovative ways to maintain current human habits and lifestyle. It would serve our students well to seek out college majors in subjects such as science, engineering, and technology; and this is yet another way that we can begin to build those interests early.

So let’s put the green food dye and cupcakes aside and consider a new way of “going green” this St. Patrick’s Day. Using the fun-loving nature of today’s holiday as a platform to create responsible consumers in our kids will have lasting benefits on their educational prospects for the future – and may even promote positive changes in our whole society.




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3.14.15 – What’s Special About This Year’s Pi Day

Math enthusiasts are geeking out this week over the date March 14th, also known as Pi Day (3.14), which took place this past Saturday. As I write this, math teachers all over the country are probably engaging their students in interactive pi-themed activities, including everything from pi rap songs to competing to see who has memorized the most digits. The community has gotten involved in many place as well, with the San Francisco Exploratorium offering free admission and a pizza dough throwing contest, and even the vendors at Austin’s South by Southwest  (SXSW) music festival participating in the fun.

This particular year, though, marks an even more iconic date than usual, as 3.14.15 are the first five digits of pi. To take it one step further, folks marveled that at exactly 9:26 and 53 seconds, the date and time correctly lined up the first ten digits of pi (3.141592653) – an event that could only possibly take place this once.

In math, pi is used to introduce kids to many different concepts, and has also been long known to be somewhat of a mystery. It’s usually the first irrational number kids are taught – that is, a number that can’t be written as a simple fraction. It also seems somewhat magical when kids first realize that it’s the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter – no  matter the size of the circle. The biggest mathematical mystery that students have grappled with for years is the fact that the infinite digits of pi continue in a seemingly unpredictable sequence. Some ambitious mathematicians actually calculated out the first 12.1 trillion digits a few years ago, and there’s even a list of international rankings showing that the world record holder has memorized over 67,000 digits.

As a kid, memorization is an important skill that will translate to success in other content areas outside of mathematics as well. So it’s not a useless task to sit down and see how many digits of pi you can memorize. That said, there is probably very little attention given to the educational outcomes of many Pi Day celebrations (like making a pi necklace) other than using their prior knowledge of the concept to build kids’ excitement about math.

However, if taking a little time out of class this week to talk about rap songs and necklaces will keep kids just a bit more engaged and excited about math, it’s worth the investment. Engagement is the beginning of them building a passion for math, and with that we could be creating the next crop of mathematicians who will invent even more creative ways to celebrate Pi Day on 9.26.53!

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Are You More “Outdoorsy” Than a 4th Grader?

Parents of fourth graders everywhere were told this week to start saving their pennies and packing their bags for their next family vacation: to a national park. President Obama and the National Park Foundation announced the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative, providing free access to all national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges to all fourth graders and their families for the duration of their fourth grade year.

The President explained the program as a commitment to “giving every kid the chance to explore America’s great outdoors and unique history.” The White House further explained that 4th graders are the perfect age group to target for several reasons: alignment with state history curricula, the presence of just one 4th grade teacher per student, and the age group being prime time to forge a connection with nature. The Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) has already shared some public praise, quoting leaders of influential organizations such as The Sierra Club and The National Wildlife Federation.

The folks at OAK aren’t the only ones who have taken interest in the so-called “kid-nature gap,” also discussed by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv and other naturalists argue that a disconnect from the natural world produces ill effects on one’s mind and body – in some cases this is referred to as the Leave No Child Inside campaign.

The influx of technology over the past decade has radically transformed the way kids interact with the environment; with so many indoor options, there is little time left for outdoor exploration. For example, the Children and Nature Network found that only six percent of kids ages 9-13 play outside on their own in a typical week; whereas the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that kids ages 8-18 spend an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day using “entertainment media,” which includes TVs, computers, cell phones, video games, and mp3 players.

But research actually suggests we may be doing our kids more harm than good by allowing them to continue to choose cell phones and video games over the more traditional outdoor forms of entertainment. According to Scholastic, kids crave an innate connection with nature – and that connection has also been shown to relieve stress, increase attention span, and activate the senses. In his groundbreaking book, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the social condition resulting from a disconnect between human and nature – leading to diminished use of the senses, difficulties with attention, and higher rates of illness. He also suggested that the condition may play a role in childhood obesity, depression, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Anecdotally, spending time outside is also said to increase a sense of wonder and natural curiosity in us all. If you’ve ever pulled up to a park or open field with a group of kids, you’ve seen them scramble to get outside and start running around getting dirty. It’s a very different – freeing – form of play and exploration that one cannot get with a computer game, no matter how realistic it is.

So as the weather turns warmer and everyone prepares for their trips to national parks next year, let’s take every opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine. Ditch the video games for a few days – you may be surprised by how much the kids (and you) love it!

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