All posts by Samson X. Lim

About Samson X. Lim

Samson Lim is the Founder and Chairman of the Board of Scholarship Junkies, a Seattle-based scholarship resource organization that works to help students make higher education more affordable. Sam spent the 2010-11 academic year in Berlin, Germany, as a U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar and is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Education Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. When he’s not buried in grad school reading, Sam emerges every once in a while to highlight higher education and financial aid issues in 140 characters or less at @samsonxlim.

“Tower of David:” Homeland catches up to Brody

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Jay: Episode 3 was a strange beast. You’d think that, after two Brody-less episodes, I’d be thrilled to finally get one in which he’s onscreen for most of the hour. (Even more so considering the utter absence of his family, which I think everyone can agree was a pleasant development.)

And yet at times his scenes seemed to drag on (a notable achievement given the clear –and successful — attempt at eye candy with the inclusion of Martina García as Esme), without any clear sense of direction. I suppose it was inevitable that a substantial amount of time would be required to reestablish Brody in the viewing audience’s consciousness. But something about his interactions with the doctor, as well as with Esme’s father, left me feeling slightly disengaged by about 30 minutes in.

Fortunately, the duller moments were broken up by some truly spectacular vistas of downtown Caracas, including a breathtaking view of the Tower of David itself from the outside. But phenomenal cinematography aside, I was still left with a lot of questions. For example, how did Brody end up in Colombia in the first place, before getting shot and making his lucky way into Venezuela? And who, exactly, was the guy that visited Carrie in the mental hospital? (And why did he call her — at least, it sounded like he did — Franklin when he first saw her?) And who, or what, is really keeping Carrie in the institution? Is it really Saul, or is it simply the doctor out of concern for her condition? Continue reading “Tower of David:” Homeland catches up to Brody

“Uh…Oh…Ah…:” Sam Lim and I discuss an inexplicably-titled Episode 2 of Homeland, Season 3

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Sam: You know what I thought this week? Did Homeland start taking a page from The Americans?

Is it just me or has this season been super charged with emotional relationships so far? As you pointed out, the storyline with Carrie being off her meds and having to be committed again is not new. Nor is Dana’s bickering with her mom.

Having said all that, it does make sense that deep rooted issues like the ones they are dealing with aren’t “fixed” overnight. It’s just the heavy emphasis on relationships that’s taking away from the thrill of Homeland as a covert operations show that’s starting to get to me.

I’m going to try something new and share my winners and losers this week:

Winner — Quinn. I sort of panned him last week for not being a cold blooded assassin. But it’s exactly his heart that’s got him in the winner’s seat. Loved his confrontation with the bank big wig and his subtle defense of Farah (sp?).

Loser — There were a few candidates here, but I’m giving it to Saul this week. In the sense of character development for Saul, you could argue he actually belongs in the winners column. I put him in the losers column this week because of the racist and condescending bit he threw at Farah (hey, I get to make up the rules for my winners and losers picks, right?).

What were your thoughts on this episode? Continue reading “Uh…Oh…Ah…:” Sam Lim and I discuss an inexplicably-titled Episode 2 of Homeland, Season 3

“Tin Man Is Down:” Sam Lim and I recap Homeland‘s return, sans Brody

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Sam: In our prognostications after the season two finale about what we might expect in season three, I have to say: I was pretty wrong about Brody’s family disappearing from the story a bit. Not only are they back in the picture, but they also got way more screen time than Brody himself (you surprised at his no-show?).

I have to believe that the writers just wanted to find some way of getting moody (and as we have clearly come to see, depressed) Dana back into the picture. Poor Chris still gets one or two dopey lines.

As for the Saul-Carrie relationship, what you said at the end of season two about Saul’s dark horse potential for being something more than what we have seen, I couldn’t help eyeing him with suspicion throughout this episode, particularly with all the CIA leaks to the press.

What were your impressions? Continue reading “Tin Man Is Down:” Sam Lim and I recap Homeland‘s return, sans Brody

This one’s for “The Colonel:” Sam Lim and I lament Season 1 of The Americans

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Sam: I will admit that I really did not want to watch this episode, but it actually surprised me with keeping my attention throughout nearly the whole episode. Sad that I couldn’t say the same about just about every other episode, but I’ve beaten that dead horse silly already.

The main part about this episode that kept my interest was obviously the whole double meeting assignment given to Phil and Elizabeth, especially leading up to the moment Phil swoops in his old car and carries Elizabeth away to safety (but not before she apparently gets shot in the stomach).

As interesting as that was, though, there were way too many silly story lines that pulled that together. For one, Nina’s whole double agent bit has just gotten ridiculous. You touched on it from last week’s episode: she basically got off for treason with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Um…didn’t the KGB take out one of their own they didn’t trust in an earlier episode? She works in the frickin’ US office, so she seems like she’d be an even greater threat.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 4.47.19 PMStan’s character is also interesting, because he plays this stone cold agent on one hand who detects that one dude was “off” so wants to keep him closed up in solitary confinement until he hollers. But on the other hand, he’s not attentive enough to tell that Nina played him? Her reaction to his response that exfiltration would NOT be happening was absolutely absurd. Shouldn’t she have flipped out about 100x more than she actually did? Frankly, he should’ve then been comforting her, not the other way around.

One more major gripe: has Paige really NEVER tried to go to her parents’ room when she’s had a nightmare before? How old is she now? Like 13? NOW she decides to go to her mom’s room? And that whole thing about the laundry room. Good for her for asking Elizabeth why she didn’t hear the washing machine, but that whole last scene of the episode/season was just stupid. Yes, Elizabeth is great about covering her tracks, but the dragged out way in which Paige went downstairs would make you think she’d never seen the basement/laundry room in her own home before.

Oh, and we finally saw the Granny/Arkady in the car scene. After watching that scene, I have to say: they went through a lot of work just to shoot that one scene…

What were your thoughts on this season finale? Continue reading This one’s for “The Colonel:” Sam Lim and I lament Season 1 of The Americans

After Episode 12, Sam Lim and I take “The Oath” never to watch The Americans again

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Sam: A couple of unexpecteds happened this week, but I think this show lost me so long ago that it didn’t even interest me. (I suppose my overall negativity toward this show doesn’t spruce up the conversation much, does it?)

First, I forgot to mention last week that the developments with Clark/Phil and Martha are entertaining in a terrible way. I feel horrible for her, since she’s getting completely duped. But it is funny to watch Phil in these moments.

This week took it to a whole new level though. Granny playing his mom and Elizabeth playing his sister? Martha’s mom’s comment that “I can see the family resemblance!” just made it that much better. I laughed, not because it was funny, but it was just so…laughable.

I did not think Nina would get out alive whenever Arkady and team found out she was the mole, but the way it happened when it actually did just saved her for Season Two, I think. Somewhat lame, but better than perhaps the cliché “she’s gonna get shot” story. I now shift my money to Granny getting axed in the last episode. (On a side note: we still haven’t seen that scene of her and Arkady in the car shot by SIPA, have we?)

The Paige-Matthew dynamic was somewhat predictable, and honestly, I’m not sure how much it actually adds to the story as a whole, except that Paige can talk to Elizabeth about her relationship problems. Not so interesting.

Overall, I just can’t wait until this season is over, so we can go back to reviewing some actual good shows. Your thoughts? Continue reading After Episode 12, Sam Lim and I take “The Oath” never to watch The Americans again

“Covert War” on the audience: Sam Lim and I detest Episode 11 of The Americans

Sam: I’m just bored at this point. This episode did nothing for me, since I honestly don’t think it presented anything new.

Nina and Stan almost broke it off, but it didn’t seem to last. Stan’s wife is mad at him, and so is his son. Phil and Elizabeth are still apart, although it seemed like she was going to ask him to move back but then her passive-aggressiveness got the best of her so he’s still not moving back home yet. And Elizabeth and Granny had not one but TWO utterly ear-splitting dialogues that made me want to gouge out my eyes.

Oh, and they decided to bring back flashbacks because another underdeveloped character died. I will say I thought it strange that the dude compared Elizabeth and Phil’s relationship to his own relationship with his dog.

Did I miss anything?

Jay: Nope, you really didn’t.

Thoughts on NYT Op-Ed re: Teacher Professionalization

I don’t normally write on non-higher ed issues in education, but this recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn” has gotten a fair amount of traction on the interwebs. In fact, I heard about it in several emails from friends and colleagues who care about education issues as much as I do, so I thought I’d share my response to some of the key sections of the op-ed (which I encourage you to read in full):

In April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools, alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more test-based “accountability” and, since 2001, two big federal programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among children in elementary school, America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre. Continue reading Thoughts on NYT Op-Ed re: Teacher Professionalization

Episode 10, “Only You:” Sam Lim and I discuss The Americans‘ continued character purge

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Sam: After last week’s action-packed (we’re speaking relatively here) episode, this week’s episode dragged on through a whole bunch of relationship crap. From the get-go, we’d see Phil and Elizabeth give each tired looks of annoyance or sarcastic comments about their living situation.

Am I surprised? Nope. I didn’t really expect one decent episode to make things all better to begin with. One of the few positives of the show, though, is that Stan is solidifying his place as the best actor/character on the show. The way he hunts down people (including Phil, even in a sort of drunken stupor) leads him eventually to what the KGB hopes is the end of the Amador trail.

I thought his scene with Nina was particularly telling of where his priorities lie. She asked him who killed Vlad, and he responded multiple times with “I don’t know.” He even added, “If I find out something, I will let you know.”

Now, contrast that with Elizabeth’s closing scene with Gregory before she (and Phil) let him walk out the door, even while both hold guns ready to take him down. For someone who’s supposed to be steely and unforgiving, she seems to hesitate whenever she has a personal connection (i.e. Timoshev in Episode 1).Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 1.24.41 PM

Which leads me to the part where Gregory ends up doing what he says and gets into a shoot out with police. Doesn’t the KGB/Granny know now that Phil went against their orders to do what he knows he’s “supposed to do”? Or did they just not care?

What did you think of this episode?

Jay: I’m actually excited this week because, for the first time in quite awhile, we have substantively different opinions on an episode of The Americans! It’s nice to actually have something to discuss for a change, instead of our usual wholehearted agreement on how subpar each episode generally is.

Speaking of things that are subpar, I want to briefly touch on something we’d discussed after Episode 9. In that review, I said, “As for what comes next, I’m most curious about Stan’s relationship to the FBI. What scares me most is that his extrajudicial execution of Vlad will be summarily dispensed with in the next episode’s first two minutes, and all will continue as usual as if it were a simple tantrum that everyone will get over. I hope that doesn’t happen — because if it does, that’s hopelessly unrealistic.”

To which you presciently responded: “Unfortunately, I fear what we do not want to see is exactly what will happen. We’ve seen it happen before (that I can’t remember exactly when speaks to the fact that they did not make what seemed like a huge moment very memorable).”

So…yeah. That happened. Are we just too young to understand the brutality of Cold War counterintelligence, or (as seems to me) it’s just unrealistic to assume that a high-ranking FBI officer such as Agent Gadd would be unperturbed by the extrajudicial execution of an innocent person? Again, it’s not as if this were the CIA: it’s the FBI, an ostensibly domestically-focused organization. I just have a hard time believing events would have transpired as they did.

Like you, some of this episode’s moments felt contrived to me as well. I eye-rolled a little to myself after Stan came knocking on Phil’s hotel room door, and even more so after the conversation switched immediately to the death of Amador. There is just no logical reason to believe that a seasoned FBI agent would be so free-wheeling in his discussions of intra-agency topics with outsiders, even if they didn’t happen to be Soviet agents.

Nevertheless, carrying over from last episode, which noticeably sped up the pace of action, I felt that this one did a decently good job of driving the story forward. Particularly interesting to me was the standoff with Elizabeth, Phil, and Gregory in the hotel room, in which each character was conflicted between competing interests in one way or another. Phil would have been glad to be the one to kill Gregory, but ironically was still too in love with Elizabeth to do it in front of her. Elizabeth was torn between her loyalty to her country and her loyalty to Gregory. Gregory himself seemed to agonize the least of the three: he knew what he had lived for, and he knew his time had come. Going to Moscow was never really an option for him.

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 1.25.47 PMTwo final points: First, as you did, I enjoyed virtually every aspect of Stan’s character in this episode. Even when he’s given bad lines or unrealistic situations to work with, the character is played almost flawlessly, and this episode was no exception. Secondly, I hadn’t even thought about the element of disloyalty to their handlers exhibited by Phil and Elizabeth by letting Gregory walk. (Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure Gregory’s shootout with the police was filmed on West 122nd Street in Morningside Heights.) Given what happened in these past two episodes with regards to Stan’s assassination of Vlad, though, I doubt we’ll see much in the way of repercussions for the Jennings.

Where do you see The Americans going from here, for the final few episodes of Season 1? Perhaps a better question — and one we asked each other towards the end of Homeland‘s second season — is who do you think will be dead at the conclusion of Season 1 here?

Sam: I just chuckled out loud at your last question. Let me respond to other parts first, and then I’ll give you my morbid prediction(s).

I agree that it seemed pretty unrealistic that Agent Gadd had (seemingly) no problems with Stan’s extrajudicial killing of Vlad. But perhaps you’re right: we don’t feel the same way as perhaps others who really lived through and understood the Cold War. For this reason, I didn’t quite know how accurate Agent Gadd’s comment about an invisible war was. For the first time though, I wasn’t overly annoyed with his character, given that his lines now were, for the most part, from the heart (and not all cheesy lines).

I will say that I thought Granny was going to pull out a pistol and take care of Gregory herself. Perhaps just for a second. Did it strike you as strange that she and Phil decide to have a conversation about finishing Gregory off directly outside his door? It reminded me of Brody shouting “Nazir!” into his cell phone when CIA agents were right down the hall.

The character conflicts in this episode were certainly what made it intriguing; I guess I was just hoping for a faster-paced episode. Funny though, I had the same thought that Gregory’s shootout was right by SIPA, and I wondered when they filmed that, especially as I imagine it would’ve been a loud day of filming potentially.

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 1.25.20 PMAs for where things are going, I think the season will end with a scenario where Stan is on the verge of discovering Phil and Elizabeth’s true identities. It’s cliché, but how else will they make people excited over Season 2? I do think someone will be dead by the end, and I come back to Nina. I’d throw in Martha as well. I feel like they’re secondary characters who have been central enough to warrant lots of attention but still expendable in the grand scheme of things. If anyone is safe, it’s Stan, Phil, and Elizabeth. However, one of them may get shot or injured or something between now and the end of Season 1.

Your thoughts on who makes it and who doesn’t?

Jay: I had a very similar reaction to the scene between Granny and Gregory. However, I was more of the mind that Gregory was going to be the one to do something sudden: kill himself, or maybe even Granny. And yes, I also thought it was strange how Granny and Phil discussed Gregory’s fate just outside his door. In fact, that scene makes even less sense when you consider that, at some point later on, Elizabeth was in the apartment with Gregory too, having what was presumably a private moment on the couch. Was Phil waiting just outside the door that entire time? (It seems as if he was, since he comes in at the end as Elizabeth is preparing to leave.) And if so, I don’t understand what happened earlier, following Phil’s conversation with Granny, in which it appears that Phil is about to enter the apartment himself. What happened immediately after that? There’s never any indication that Phil and Gregory had spoken to each other in this episode, prior to the point at which Phil enters with a gun.

Anyway, I agree that Nina is an obvious candidate to get knocked off. In some ways, it seems almost too obvious — as in perhaps the show’s creators want us to believe she’s doomed in order to pull off a different surprise? Almost from the moment she first appeared, Nina has had a huge bullseye on her back: it would be understandable if, for that reason alone, The Americans was hesitant to actually do what everyone expects and kill her off. I can imagine Martha being killed, but I’m actually going to go with Arkady and/or Granny as my top two candidates for early termination.

Obama FY2014 Budget Proposal: Implications for Higher Ed

The Obama administration just released its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2014, and the Twittersphere tweeted and retweeted all over itself, highlighting budget details and how they might affect certain programs. This blog post won’t look at the overall budget (or even all education issues) but instead will focus on its impact on higher education. Although not every one of these proposals will actually come to be, it’s still worth fleshing out the juiciest higher education highlights (details on pages 82-84 of that link).

Provide $1 Billion for Race to the Top Focused on Curbing College Tuition

Proposing a higher ed Race to the Top (RTTT) competition isn’t entirely new. The Obama Administration also included it in its budget proposal last year; however, it failed to make the final cut. With college affordability in arguably no better shape a year later, there is hope that a higher ed RTTT may actually happen this year.

Create a First in the World Fund to Spur Innovation to Boost College Affordability

The proposal sets aside $260 million to incentivize new ways of delivering higher education and increasing postsecondary access and affordability. This seems to be geared toward exploring more ways to build on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and community organizations focusing on college access issues. The idea here has also been proposed before, but it has likewise not been funded.

Boosting Campus-Based Aid Programs Based on Enrollment and Graduation Rates Among Low-Income Students

This proposal directs more than $10 billion toward Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), Federal Work Study, and Perkins Loans. Part of this boost includes a $150 million increase for the Federal Work Study program to double the number of participants over five years. Perhaps most interestingly, this idea proposes reforms that would tie the amount of campus-based aid to institutions’ efforts to enroll and graduate low-income students.

Lock In Student Loan Interest Rates at Market-Based Rates

Current student loan interest ranges from 3.4% to 6.8%, depending on the program. The proposal suggests tying interest rates to the government’s cost of borrowing, which means interest rates would likely be tied to 10-year Treasury notes and include additional rates of 0.93% for subsidized Stafford loans, 2.93% for unsubsidized Stafford loans, and 3.93% for loans for parents and graduate students. The rate on new loans would be set each year based on the market rate.

Maintain Pell Grant Maximum Award at $5,645 Through 2015-16

As the Department of Ed’s document of highlights notes, the Pell Grant maximum award has increased by $915 since 2008, which is welcome news for low-income and lower-middle-income undergraduate students. As I’ve written before, part of the challenge of maintaining Pell Grant funding is ensuring fiscal sustainability for its long-term viability.

Provide Funding for Further Research on Student Aid for Postsecondary Education

The proposal calls for $9 million for upgrades to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to improve federal data on postsecondary students. It also proposes $8 million for more frequent surveys of postsecondary students to gather data on who receives student aid, enrollment patterns, and graduation rates for those who receive federal financial aid. Finally, it includes $67 million for research and evaluation of federal student aid.

Of these main higher ed highlights, the one that will get the most noise is likely the proposal tying student loan interest rates to market-based interest rates, as Libby Nelson of Inside Higher Education noted:

More interesting, though, is the second half of her tweet, which predicts that the campus-based aid idea of tying funding to outcomes for low-income students might actually receive the most pushback. In considering all of these proposals, I would have to agree with this assessment, because institutions rely heavily on these aid programs to retain their students.

Aside from the Pell Grant highlight (which doesn’t propose anything new), none of the other proposals are as closely tied to direct student funding as the campus-based aid programs. By this, I mean that the RTTT and First in the World competitions would both provide additional funding that institutions and states would not already have received under current budget formulas.

The budget also calls for making the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) permanent, which would provide up to $2,500 for higher education costs. The threshold for eligibility is higher, which includes more middle-income households (who tend to benefit more from tax credits like this  anyway), and it allows for book expenses and is available for the first four years of college.

While other areas of the Obama budget might have clear winners and losers, it’s hard to say whether higher ed is a winner or loser IF (and it really is only an “if”) all of these proposals are ultimately funded (which is entirely unlikely). In this scenario where each proposal is indeed funded, I would probably lean slightly toward higher ed being more of a loser than winner, given that student loan interest rates will likely increase using market-based rates, and campus-based aid programs might become more limited if tied to low-income student outcomes while college tuition is likely to continue to rise. On this last point though, the goal of the higher ed-focused RTTT is to contain tuition increases, but I have a hard time seeing enough substantial funding from states to offset the increases that have occurred in recent years.

Instead, I probably share more of the sentiment that Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, expressed in his statement on the Obama budget: while it rightly focuses its proposals on addressing college affordability, some of the deeper-rooted issues may be best resolved through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (which Congress is supposed to reauthorize this year). While I do hope that the renewal of the HEA can provide long-term solutions for student loans, student aid programs, and college affordability, the question is whether Congress will actually reauthorize it on-time (they delayed the last reauthorization from 2003 to 2008).

Whether through the final budget for Fiscal Year 2014 or the reauthorization of the HEA, it’s clear that college affordability should be a priority to ensure that all students have the chance to pursue postsecondary education if they so desire.

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“Did you get into Harvard?!?”

Every spring, the title question is inevitably posed by wide-eyed, sleep-deprived high school seniors to their peers. The rat race otherwise known as the college admissions process in the United States is nearing its end (too slowly, for some).

In a guest post on Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post, Liz Willen from The Hechinger Report (shout out to Teachers College, Columbia University!) brilliantly captured the ritualistic process to which rankings-obsessed teens and parents around the country subject themselves year after year:

Listen closely, and the list of rejected valedictorians, team captains and accomplished test-takers will go on and on. You may even hear navel-gazing parents and students who received too many thin envelopes ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?”

Willen’s point, however, is that this whole hubbub we (yes, I’m guilty of it, too) have built up throughout the academic year is completely wrong-headed, in terms of how it portrays higher education and in relation to what higher education actually means.

English: Teacher's College 2004 2004 Christoph...
English: Teacher’s College, 2004. Christopher Matta, free to use for any purpose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On my regular bus to Teachers College the other day, the quiet space I occupied alone in the back was suddenly overrun by high school seniors speaking much too loudly for a public space. Initially annoyed at having my peace and quiet disturbed, I became intrigued at the banter thrown around from one corner of the bus to another.

Student A: You applied to Harvard?? You know only like 6% get admitted, right?!

Student B: I know…

Student A: That means, if you filled up this bus with 100 people, only 6 people would get in!

Conversations like these are precisely the target of Ms. Willen’s post:

We go wrong by engaging in this wrong-headed, waste-of-time conversation at all, and by comparing our kids’ test scores and GPAs, their merits and drawbacks. Sure, it’s seductive to be drawn into side-by-side comparisons and speculate about the “secret formula” for getting into top schools like Brown University, where 28,919 applicants vied for acceptances that totaled just 2,649.

Even the new movie starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, Admission, has contributed to this cycle of hair-pulling and eye-gouging.

In the new comedy Admission, the Princeton admissions officer played by Tina Fey is repeatedly asked to divulge that formula.

“Just be yourself,” Fey falsely answers. The film illustrates how largely unsuccessful such advice is by showing a parade of accomplished applicants falling through the floor of Princeton’s committee room and into oblivion.

Unfortunately, the movie perpetuates Ivy League angst, promoting the wrong conversation in a country where community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher education—and where the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with a two- or four-year college degree is just 38.7 percent.

How often have we heard this statement of “just be yourself?” Few colleges I know of actually say that, though. (For more on the waste-of-time conversation that Ms. Willen points out, these three words recently got lots of play after a satirical WSJ op-ed by a high school senior and a subsequently swift response via Gawker.)

College access and affordability issues have long been the focus of my research, and as such, it’s what I’ve written about. But, the real conversation about college admissions that Ms. Willen notes is absolutely a critical dialogue: it’s not about where you go to college; it’s about what you do in college.

While the general perception is that having a degree from an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT automatically trumps a degree from most other institutions, the truth is our focus should be on the substance of the degrees and not the degrees themselves.

And until all the guidance, mentorship, and training that we can offer high school students truly helps them and their families embrace substance over style as a key outcome of higher education, we’ll be having this same conversation next spring.

It looks like we have some work to do.

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