The Exploited College Athlete and the Revenge of the Nerds

As Peter and I were reviving a series of old 80s college movies (most of which are terrible), we realized our son had missed out on life by never having seen Revenge of the Nerds or any of its sequels. Quite frankly, I suspect the only value in it is for Neil to see the character Booger, who was clearly based upon my college Ivy League boyfriend.

These days the people I like and hang out with are openly and happily nerdy. Whether it is that we were attracted to one another through mutual nerdy interests, the fact is that I now live is a world were one can be openly nerdy and not embarrassed about it. Since the successes of Silicon Valley and Route 128 (linked for my California friends – no, it’s not a new start-up), being smart and geeky is associated with wealth and success in a new exciting changing-the-world way. And in Neil’s lifetime, that’s expanded into pop culture, one he embraces by going to Comic Con and Maker Faire each year.

In Revenge of the Nerds, it’s the college athletes who are the big men on campus, and who denigrate the weak and unattractive nerds competing for girls and status. I’m not sure that was fair to student-athletes, but I went to a small liberal arts college, and the only athletes I ever met were football players from Williams College or Amherst College, where the sport was more of a fun extracurricular rather than the reason said scholar had matriculated at the school. (Nerdy fact: the Ivy League and Little Ivy League are a football leagues, though you’re unlikely to see their games nationally televised. Mount Holyoke’s rugby team was scarier than any of them.)

And these days, after seeing the documentary Schooled, I have sympathy for the athletes who are pressed to train and perform at their utmost for a full scholarship at a college, to the detriment of their education. According to the documentary, 98.5% of the college athletes won’t go on into pro sports, where the real money is. They will have had access to great scholars, great classes, great knowlege, and great contacts, in part due to the money their success brought into licensing their college’s brand and being spokespeople for it. But as one athlete pointed out, his regime consisted of getting up at 5:30 am to train until 9 am, going to classes for three hours, training further through the afternoon, getting personalized tutoring (needed if the athlete came in unprepared), and then doing homework until 11 pm at night.

Athleticism requires discipline and that’s something to be respected in athletes, and especially in athlete-scholars. But where is their room to develop rhetoric? It was what Neil’s homeschool education led to, and I’m so delighted he’s a poised young man with his own opinions and passions, as well as someone who can respect other’s points of view, and discuss ideas. If you’re a team athlete, you know you’ve been blessed with a great and healthy body and gifted with the ability to use it to its best ability in challenging competitions. There are other gifts athletes often demonstrate, such as an ability to present themselves confidently and to be able to read others (especially teammates and opponents) discretely and play a game based on that knowledge. Behind that, you need the ability to think critically, to be able to run numbers, and to have a core knowledge of the literature and history which underlies the present.

So in Schooled, the real argument is how much is that free tuition and board worth in exchange for the athletic skills the student-athlete brings to the college? If he or she is truly a scholar who’ll be able to put as much passion and effort into soaking up the knowledge and connections the college offers (and I suppose to my nerdy mind that requires nerds happily hanging with jocks, or better yet jocky nerds and nerdy jocks), it’s something that works for everyone. If the athlete can’t keep up with the classes, it’s not. Furthermore, the training and NCAA rules precluded the athletes from having a campus job, even one which would have fit in quite well with the athlete’s gifts, like say, getting a disabled student out onto a sports field, or modelling for an art class — and which would have kept the most destitute students who lacked spending money enough to cover their costs.

Overall, the documentary criticized the NCAA, which commercialized college athletics without letting any of the money trickle down to most athletic students. I would criticize the colleges for making big sports of importance beyond academic studies, so much so that they would prioritize accepting a talented athlete disproportionately to his academic skill. It might also call for us having more private minor leagues, where those looking for the next pro talent can find their next stars, exclusive of a college setting. Personally, for many years I enjoyed the San Jose Giants, a feeder baseball team into the big leagues, and that largely not for the talent of the athletes, but even more for the organization’s connection to our local community and its businesses.

Most of all, nerds and jocks need no longer be adversaries. Neither is more important that the other. The nerds can help the jocks get their proper due, and get the knowledge and skills that will help the jocks enjoy life even when their bodies begin to slow down. And the jocks can teach the nerds how to make the most of their physical bodies; as we become increasingly sedentary and fat, we should have those who teach us the joy of running and playing and catching things, and for challenging oneself, both physically and mentally, not just on a video screen but also in real life.

The Perfect SAT Score and the Quest for the Right College

Yesterday, we got some amazing news: Neil scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT test he took earlier this month. I’ve got to hand it to him, he’s always been smart, but he really sweated the SAT, running himself through practice test after practice test, and  even mastering the devilish essay which gets the best of so many other bright kids who are great at math and reading. Our entire family is overjoyed at his accomplishment, and there’s a real sense that it might open doors for him.

As impressive as a test number might seem, anyone who knows him knows it doesn’t sum up what he’s really about. I started homeschooling him after fourth grade when a teacher nixed his desire to do a book report on Brian Green’s book on string theory. After I started homeschooling him, he fell in love with Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and became fascinated with cellular automata (when he was 10). During his first year of homeschooling, he was beyond thrilled to encounter one of his heroes, Bill Gosper, who became his mentor. Over the years, Neil got into developing algorithms for solving mechanical puzzles, particularly sliding block puzzles, as well as 3D printing with a MakerBot he saved up for and constructed himself on our kitchen table over a period of days. He set a world record for calculating the continued fractions of Pi when he was 13. Thanks to his mathematics blog, he managed to snag an invitation to the Gathering 4 Gardner conference which he’s now attended three times, twice as a presenter.This gave him an amazing chance to meet his other heroes and like-minded academics who share their love of recreational math with him. He’s kept up his mathematics blog, and contributed to The New York Times‘ Wordplay column. But math isn’t his entire life: he’s also studied literature, history and foreign language, works part time as a production assistant, and he’s working towards becoming an Eagle Scout.

Neil wants to go to college. It’s where he can meet and hang out with other kids like him, and drop in to run ideas past a professor or grad student. The problem is that college is obscenely expensive these days, and despite all the repeated assurances of financial aid, it’s all meaningless  until my husband and I fill in several intimidating forms and get a resultant bill, which we will cringingly compare with our household finances.

As every parent knows, finding the right college for all that money is really hard and unfortunately the countless similar-looking glossy brochures aren’t really helping much. It must be equally difficult for the college admissions officers, who are under pressure to both sell their school’s brand but are tasked with deciding which candidates fit from among tens of thousands of hopeful applicants.

With so many thousands applying, it’s impossible to know students as anything but a score to identify the candidates who are capable of handling the school’s curriculum. This is complicated by the fact that the hard-working kids with good scores often apply to dozens of top universities, instead of focusing on the one or two that they most want to attend.

So I’m left with a feeling of hopeful irony. It may just be that this particular number is one which allows someone at a college to take a pause and really look at him as an individual. From there, we can hope they can make a pitch for why their college would offer a great opportunity for him specifically and whether he would be a great fit for their campus.

 

The College Fair

Yesterday evening, Neil and I went to Exploring Educational Excellence, a college fair, a first for him. More than anything, in the frustrating sameness of college solicitations, we wanted to hear what the unique qualities are for any school. In that, the fair excelled. The admissions officers for each school only had 10 minutes to talk about their university, and all focused on its differences versus all the other hard-to-get-into national universities with good research opportunities for undergrads.

The admissions people may be as frustrated with the candidates as I am with bland school solicitations. I asked the poised young woman near us if she wanted to go to school on the East Coast, and she told me, no, she hates snow. So then…the only one of the 5 schools she’d have any interest in would be Rice University, though she had the brochures from all the schools in her lap. As the session was about to begin, a fellow parent took the lone remaining seat next to me (in the 375-person capacity room!) I asked about her child, and she said her son had stayed behind to do his homework as both his parents came in his place. So, um, how’s he going to be able to decide if he wants to apply to any of the schools? It was as if some people were hoping for that one of the seats would have an envelope beneath it with a guaranteed admission ticket to one of the schools glued underneath it.

Brown University was up first. In my mind, it’s the East Coast hippie university. I didn’t know that it has no general requirements, so you can indeed math out to your heart’s content, if that is your heart’s content, though you’ll almost certainly want to check out the rest of the scene. I also didn’t know that Providence, Rhode Island is a foodie mecca, though I’m not surprised. There is a new all-glass classroom building which just had me thinking of being a bug under a magnifying glass. It would be no fun at all in a heat wave. And true to my expectations, it’s the only university in the US offering a year abroad in Cuba.

An alumna had already tipped Neil on to the University of Chicago, where the t-shirts say “If I wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard.” So it was also no surprise to  hear about their strong core curriculum, interdisciplinary thought, and the Hogswarts-esque fact that students live in the same “house” for all 4 years. It was the alumna, not the admissions officer, who made the Harry Potter reference, by the way. All the admissions officers felt it necessary to comment on winter weather at their campuses, to which this admissions officer said “I have three words for you. Get over it.”

Columbia University recently sent Neil a tome of material. Pros of Columbia: NYC. Cons of Columbia: NYC. The admissions officer was particularly amusing, and I did learn some things about the university I didn’t know. The core curriculum sounds especially classical, with an emphasis on history and serious literature, appealing to the classical homeschooler. There’s a swim test based on a tradition from the days of the American Revolution, when the university wanted to make sure its students could swim across the Hudson River to safety in case the British invaded the campus. Engineers are excused from the test, on the presumption they’ll be able to build an alternate way to get across the river. Most classes don’t meet on Friday, leaving you free to explore the city on long weekends, and (OMFG) your student ID gets you into every museum in NYC for free. Unfortunately, I was having Seinfeld flashbacks, though I didn’t know where Neil belonged in the cast.

Neil’s grandparents went to Cornell, and he visited it two years ago, so we really wanted to see something about the school that would make it a top choice. But alas, the presentation cemented it as the countryside college where the urban kids come to get away for four years. There’s a center for the study of inequality, and it’s not in the math department. They have a school of labor-management relations, which made me wonder how often the professors go on strike. But if you love food science and hospitality (as Neil’s grandparents do), this place is it. You can invent your own ice cream flavor, and if it’s good enough, it’ll be produced and sold in the campus creamery. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feud between the Vegetarian Club and its counterpart the MEAT (men eating animals together) clubs.

Last, but certainly not least, was Rice University from Houston. It had not been on my radar at all, but its handouts included a brochure noting that it has full tuition merit scholarships for top candidates to its engineering school, which includes math and computer science. Helloooo, Rice, you’re singing my song! I didn’t know what to make of the fact that 10% of its students are varsity athletes, and wrote down one of my insane reasons for not liking the school — possibly too cool. All the kids in the presentation looked so happy! What’s up with that!

At the presentation’s end, each representative gave a “pearl of wisdom” about the admissions process, most of which I know but which was good to hear again. Ellen Perlmutter from Cornell stressed the importance of having the student, not the parent, own the college selection process, and advised us to make the car a no college conversation zone. Neil nixed that. He’d much rather talk about prospective colleges with me than have me force him to decline Latin nouns again. Javier Placentia from Columbia stressed the importance of an original essay, and I once again got an idea of what these admissions officers have to go through, reading hundreds of paraphrases from this book, hastily typed out at 10 pm on December 31. Also, he noted, get someone to proofread your essay. Columbia is not spelled y-a-l-e.

Students were welcome to talk to the admissions officers and alumni directly afterwards. I hung back, because I am #6, and I think those reps had suffered enough already. They sincerely wanted to speak to the kids, not the parents; perhaps to that end, I quipped, they should have free beer, and perhaps a sign up for discount coupons, for say $10 off the deposit on the school of your choice (please indicate in advance), given that next year, almost all of these parents will be coughing up thousands of dollars to some university. As Neil joined the mobbing students to listen in on questions and answers, I chatted with the fellow parents, who are all as neurotic as me. I’m worried that the jank homeschooler transcript I’m cobbling together will be incoherent. Oh, it’s original alright, but it may get an equally original response, like “WTF?&^%$!” (As I said earlier, Columbia’s upside, NYC, Columbia’s downside, NYC.) But a father was worried that his daughter’s high school wasn’t rigorous enough to get her through the admissions process. And he lived in a posh suburb known for its excellent schools! And many of the students will be sending off applications to all the colleges, not for any specific appeal, but simply because they’re hard to get into, despite the fact that they’re hard to get into because everyone is sending them applications.

I drove back and Neil and I chatted about all the schools; I wish more of the material we get was as distinctive about their schools as these presentations were.

 

The Frustrating Sameness of College Recruitment

Neil is now at the stage of his education where I’ve tasked him with identifying a few colleges he might like to attend. And so, when he started taking College Board tests, I encouraged him to let them sell his information to various colleges who think he’d be a good fit for them. Soon glossy brochures and well-crafted letters started showing up in the mail, and emails filled his inbox. Since I’m homeschooling him, I’m his guidance counselor as well as his teacher as well as his mom, and after the pile had gotten large enough and we looked at all the material to see if there were any colleges we hadn’t heard of previously which he could put on his prospective colleges list.

Alas, what stood out more than anything was the sameness of all the colleges. They all have good-looking friendly students, great professors, beautiful campuses, and are committed to diversity and caring for the environment. Come tour the campus and you’ll meet students from all over the world, and enjoy their new state-of-art fitness center/library/student center. They’re also all phenomenally expensive (though they offer need-based financial aid, which I understand as ruinous loans) and so exclusive in their admissions process you better be able to walk on water if you want to get in.

Part of the low admissions rate is due to the fact that applying for college is online, so if you apply to one college. you can almost as easily apply to 40, and many students do. I was curious about the other end of the process — how many of the accepted students end up going to a certain school. This is called the yield rate, and like many of the other statistics, such as number of students and average SAT score, you can look it up.

Not surprisingly, most of the students accepted at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or MIT ended up there: all those schools are well-known and have a great reputation. What stood out, however — especially in the case of schools classified as liberal arts colleges — was that the ones with the highest yield rates weren’t necessarily exclusive, but rather ones which offered more unique sort of educational experience. That the U.S. Naval Academy has an 86.7% yield is no surprise — when you have to make the effort to pitch a member of Congress of choosing you as their favorite candidate for the school, it’s almost certainly your top choice. But others with a high yield rate stand out because they are unique, such as the only college for religious sect (i.e. Principia College, Soka University), or with a markedly different course of study than that at mainstream colleges, such as Thomas Aquinas College, which is one of the few in the nation offering a classical Great-Books-based education.

For  just like the admissions officers who have to pore over thousands, or tens of thousands, of applications from eager teens across the nation and from all over the world, what we want most of all is a good “fit.” I want each college to stand out, and tout its unusual qualities, but the endless brochures only exclaim how unique each school is in exactly the same way. Collaring an actual student or recent graduate gets you far more information in a minute or two than the glossiest brochure with eerily similar demographic students mixes as all the other brochures.

I would much prefer if the colleges captured that and put that into their marketing. Go ahead, and point out that students party so hearty at your university that beer pong is a varsity level sport; or that your foremost criteria is academic merit so everyone (except the professor) in the Combinatorics class is the kind of person who got beat up in high school for skewing the grading curve. If you’re a small school in the Upper Midwest, go ahead and tell everyone what we already suspect — that it can get down to 40 below during finals week (in May) but that it fosters a particularly close-knit student body and the kinds of friends you’ll still be tight with 50 years from now. It would be so refreshing to know why the students at your college which I’ve never heard of before chose to go there. And if the answer is “because I couldn’t get in anywhere else,” um, well, I guess the picture of your verdant lawn will do.

And in this age of advanced data marketing, why can’t the information also be better targeted? From the letters and pictures, it’s pretty clear almost every college wants the Hispanic valedictorian who’s been helping the homeless in her community, and that’s great for her, but that’s not Neil. You’d think with all the information he ticked off on the lengthy College Board application, there might have been one or two pieces which actually reflected him, such as a note about how to apply as a homeschooler, or stories about some of the cool math professors and what they teach. So regrettably, almost all of the carefully crafted brochures and viewbooks went into the trash. Which isn’t very green at all, despite the school’s commitment to the environment.

Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR

Peter and I have been watching the Gordon Ramsay shows for years, and we enjoy them. They’re reality shows, so you know they’re edited for maximum drama. But I always wonder if everyone else’s food is really as bad as Gordon Ramsay thinks it is. Sure, sometimes it is obviously bad, like when a cake has mold on the bottom (ugh), or the refrigerator’s gone off, and no one realized it. But almost every single episode of Kitchen Nightmares has restauranteurs swearing that whatever may be remiss with their restaurant, it’s not their food. Whereupon Ramsay takes no-thank-you bites of 3 or 4 of their dishes and exclaims them all inedible.

So on our last visit to Las Vegas, we decided to check out one of the Gordon Ramsay themed restaurants there, and late Wednesday night, got a seat at BurGR in the Planet Hollywood casino. I will note that this is not my style in restaurants. First of all, I think the whole gourmet burger thing is overblown — every celebrity chef and celebrity restauranteur has a place which specializes in serving up $8, $15, $25 burgers (see Kerry Simon, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wahlburgers, etc. etc.) And Las Vegas already has plenty of colorful burger joints already, like the Heart Attack Grill and Holsteins Shakes and Buns. It’s definitely a competitive space, and I don’t even care that much for burgers, much less $15 ones.

Plus, the Gordon Ramsay restaurants are phenomenally popular in a town which has hundreds of great restaurants to choose from. We first tried to get into Pub at Caesar’s Palace on Monday night, and at 8 pm, the expected wait was 1-1/2 hours. I try to avoid restaurants that make me wait, because I know there’s typically an equally good competitor happy to find me a seat (even if it’s on a card table they have to bring out from the back.) But we had to sate our curiously, so we went to Planet Hollywood earlier on Wednesday night, and went to the magic shop during our 45 minute wait for a table.

To my huge — and pleasant — surprise, it was worth the wait and the money. Between the four of us, we ordered three different kinds of (beef) burgers. Peter got the Uber Cheese Burger (no umlaut), Neil got the Hell’s Kitchen Burger, and I got the Chantarelle Burger. Kelly ordered the truffle Parmesan fries and couldn’t eat them all. Both kids ordered an Oreo cookie shake with creme brulee pudding; I had a banana shake with butterscotch pudding; and Peter had the chocolate shake with caramel pudding.

BurGR delivered up to Gordon Ramsay’s standards, as shown on TV. Peter carefully examined the cook and consistency of all our burgers, and they were all cooked exactly as ordered, and carefully assembled. We’re still trying to reconstruct exactly what was in the burgers, but they were delicious and did not taste like standard grilled ground chuck. One part was that they were grilled over hardwood, but there were other flavorings, and probably alternate ground cuts (yet, not pork) involved. Peter and Neil are notoriously picky eaters, in different ways. Neil, who mostly doesn’t eat, loved his burger so much he was moved to write a review of it — again, mind that this is the kid who generally picks at his food and leaves most of it behind. Peter hates for anything except cheese to touch his meat, but he much enjoyed his taste of my burger, which had arugula, mushroom and figgy jam; as well as of Neil’s, which had spicy sauce, jalapeno peppers, and pickles. The shakes were all amazing, too. You could tell both the thick milkshake at the bottom and the pudding at the top were freshly made, and the pudding and milkshake worked well together. Kelly is open-minded about food so she’s tasted a lot, but she raved her milkshake was the best thing she’s ever tasted in her life.

I also watched the wait-staff. They not only had cute matching uniforms, even their sneakers matched. And the food came out quickly enough. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a restaurant with a small, specialized menu and a consistently full dining room, but I’ve eaten at other restaurants in Las Vegas with a smaller menu, and inexplicably long waits for decidedly rank food.

The only downside was that the restaurant was very noisy, and it was hard to hear each other, even at a small table. It’s the downside of having a restaurant in a casino, because they are notoriously noisy places.

So, yes, the reality here does match up to the hype and reputation. Until and unless I can make burgers like that (and I will try to get close, because I can’t afford $15 burgers every week), Gordon Ramsay is free to critique my cooking. And, no, I don’t have aspirations to be a chef, or run a restaurant, so it’s unlikely to happen.

Trapped in MARTA

Atlanta, Georgia has an excellent public transportation system named MARTA. If I’m not renting a car, it’s my way of getting around town. So on my last trip to Atlanta, we took MARTA directly from the airport to the Ritz-Carlton at Ellis and Peachtree, where we were staying for Gathering for Gardner.

When we got to the Peachtree station, however, we blindly took the first elevator we saw, and couldn’t figure out which side to go out. I asked a security guard, who told me we should have gone up on the other side. Helpfully, he used his pass to let us get back in, and advised us that we would have to use (what I understood as) the “mercy gate” on the other side. I will note that he did not have a thick Southern accent; most of the people in Atlanta don’t, but rather a genteel drawl.

And “mercy gate” does sound like just the thing at Atlanta metro would have, doesn’t it? I can imagine back when the plans were being drawn up, the planners discussed the likely problem of Yankees and other d*** fools trying to go out the wrong side, and added mercy gates to all the stations.

However, when we got to the other side, there was nothing marked as the Mercy Gate. We swiping our Breeze cards on one of the exits, but having already used them to exit the other side, they didn’t word. There was a set of huge emergency gates, but they were scarily marked for emergency only, alarm will sound. Being from the Bay Area, we are well trained to fear the transit police. Quite famously, get on the wrong side of BART cop and he will shoot you. We could only imagine more dramatic consequences in Atlanta, with us Yankees storming through gates, being beset upon by the MARTA patrol, and then having a slew of locals denounce us as “those d*** fools” who barged through the emergency gate. We’d be lucky if we only got tased, and I wanted none of that.

So, obediently, I used the phone near the exit to call MARTA central. A very annoyed person on the other end advised me that I couldn’t use the Breeze card twice, and when I told her what happened, sighed audibly and said she’d send someone over to let us out.

Then we stood there, forlornly staring at the exit gates. Rush hour was beginning, and Atlanta commuters stopped to wonder why we were just standing there sadly, with our big suitcases. One tried to help us swipe out, but as before, it didn’t work. Finally, some commuting construction workers told us we really could just go through the emergency gates. Really, no one would shoot us. The alarm probably wouldn’t go off, either.

So nervously, we gathered by the emergency gates, pushed them open and rushed through. To our pleasant surprise, no alarm shrieked. No phalanx of gun-wielding MARTA security guards propelled down to wipe us out. We gave a nod of thanks to the commuters who’d assured us it was ok, but skedaddled out as fast as we could anyway. I don’t know if a security guard eventually showed up, or if the MARTA staff at headquarters watching on their camera and had placed bets on how long we’d wait, but in any case, we had no further problems with the system after that.

Elite Universities Don’t Understand Financial Hardship

Many elite universities seek out poor, but smart students, for the sake of diversity, and they go to some lengths to seek them out and reassure them that they, too, can go to, say, Stanford or Harvard, even if they don’t have the $60,000 a year it takes to go there.

However, all I see to letting such students know it’s accessible is a promise of financial aid. Being one of those families who is unhappily foreseeing a lot of correspondence with financial aid offices — at any university which accepts my son, public or private — I boggle at the thought that university officials think it’s as simple as having someone fill in a form and having them dole out some money, commensurate to what said form discloses.

First of all, previews of such forms show them to be complicated and intrusive. And the first form of all is not one for a grant, but rather for scary federal student loans, which carry a high rate of interest, and are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. So if you don’t have the $200,000 saved up for a degree, you can borrow that fantastic sum of money, and try to set it aside, bit by bit, for the rest of your life — on the suspect assumption that straight out of college you’ll have a career which pays you enough to make your own way in life and pay off a huge loan. Hm, being a doctor is supposedly one of the most lucrative professions there is, but I know doctors pushing 50 still paying off the end of their student loans. It’s not a prospect I like for my son.

Plus, how do you fill out such forms if, say, your parents don’t file taxes, or don’t have verifiable income? I know it’s illegal, but I’ll confess my mother, an East German refugee, pathologically feared the IRS forms, and preferred to have whatever income she got garnished instead. And there are those who don’t earn enough to pay taxes, but who also won’t accept government assistance, for reasons of pride, or living under the radar. A form asking one to fill out forms so the IRS can release your tax records to a school, or wondering how many houses you have, is pure gibberish for many families.

And beyond that, it’s not just money barring the impoverished bright kid from matriculating at MIT. Even at a young age, there are many children whose families rely on their support. There are small family businesses who rely on family members lending a helping hand. Or sick parents or grandparents who need the kind of extra care no home health aide could ever provide. Sure, getting the attention, support, and friendships at an elite school will springboard a child from such a family into a more lucrative lifestyle, but there’s a personal cost, in abadoning — even temporarily — those who need you while you enjoy a halcyon world of catered meals and unbelievably posh fitness centers.

And last, but not least, the “rack rate” cost of college tuition is downright off-putting in itself. When your family’s gross annual income is lower that the annual cost of attending an institution, it all but screams “your kind does not belong here.” The implication is that most people who go there can afford that price, but you are the charity case who will have to make up the difference by washing dishes and mucking out cages in front of your financial betters. And it’s made even worse by the fact that the “rich” families who pay full fare may have preferred their money go to other causes than subsidizing other people’s kids’ educations. Why can’t the elite schools forego the latest climbing wall or poor-student-acquistion officer and roll the difference into a discount for all?

In contrast, take a look at what San Jose State University does. It’s not as selective as a private college, and students get on waitlists for a seat in classrooms already packed with 40 or 200 students, and the difficulty of getting a spot in all your classes in all the right semesters means many students drop out or take more than 4 years to finish their degrees. But it’s much more accessible to the middle class and lower middle class students, some of whom already work to support themselves and cover their tuition by working 20 or more hours a week.

For instance, recently, the university experimented with some (hybrid) online classes. A San Jose State instructor streamed each lecture online, where the student could access it at any time, and send back the classwork electronically. The final exam was proctored on-campus. It gave students time flexibility, as well as an instructor who could be found on campus during his or her office hours, and best of all, it cost a fraction of what an on-campus course would cost. (It’s had a rocky start, however, since not all departments like this model.)

Students from Tau Beta Phi also told me the university will soon offer a 7-year engineering degree. Who would want to go to college for seven years? I thought. But it’s not uncommon at San Jose State for some of the students to have full time jobs, and this model allows such students to finish the degree instead of having to pick it up in pieces here and there as patches of unemployment or downtime allow.

Personally, I graduated from a posh college (with the help of lots of financial aid). So I can vouch for the non-academic advantages you enjoy at a private college, such as uncrowded swimming pool lanes; nice students with amusingly different problems than yours, as in worrying about meeting the Queen of England at their mom’s luncheon; a lot more academic freedom to go in any intellectual direction; and professors who know and support you, so much that I continued to stay in touch with several, personally and professionally. But it’s also an educational model based on the assumption you can afford to take four years (or more) years off from life in order to build the foundation for something better. And while that model still worked in the 1980s when college cost a lot less and it was easier to get a job straight out of college, it’s not a model that works for those on the lower end of the economic scale, not at today’s tuition prices, and not with today’s economy.

If elite schools are sincere about having schools based purely on merit, they may have to retool their model and/or their costs to be truly egalitarian. Or we may see a divide which takes us back to the 1920s, wherein only the well-to-do were able to send their children off for a higher education — at a handful of top schools, where one is exempt from “real life,” and ambitious souls without such blessings go to the modern equivalent of night school, in the form of public colleges with flexible schedules, online courses, and vocational education.

The Puzzler and the Magician

Kristine Hjulstand from Norway was one of the magicians performing on Saturday night at Gathering for Gardner 11. It was not only her first performance at Gathering for Gardner, but also her first in the US. She opened with a delightful performance piece set to classical music, pulling scarves of color out of painter’s palette and turning it into a painting. Afterwards she took off her coat to reveal a sexy dress underneath and cheekily announced her need for a man — not just any man, but preferably a newly-married man, whose ring wedding ring was still loose. She called for any volunteers who might meet that criteria.

A hubbub burst out in the middle of the audience. “Pick him!” “I got married just 14 days ago!”

Perfect, the still-innocent Hjulstad thought, and called up Wei-Hwa Huang. Obediently he reached out his left hand to her, and she pulled off his wedding ring….only to have it fall apart into three pieces.

A small buzz circled around the attendees as Hjulstad laughed in shock at the jumbled ring. Bill Gosper leaned over and informed me and Neil that Wei-Hwa is the multiple-time world puzzle solving champion. So it’s not the least bit unexpected that he would have a puzzle wedding ring.

I know Hjulstad had at least one dear friend among the more experienced magicians, but he was naughty enough not to warn her. Just a word to any performer: Gathering for Gardner is the worst possible place to call for volunteers blindly. They look so innocent, but they egg each other on to see if they can trip you up. I love magicians, but in among that bunch, even I’m tempted to mis-shuffle your cards and palm a few just to see what you’ll do.

Hjulstad asked Wei-Hwa if he could put his ring back together again, and he said he could, but it would take a while. So rather than turn over her act to feature Wei-Hwa’s puzzle solving mastery, Hjulstad found a back-up husband and borrowed his ring. Wei-Hwa was still the man whose (borrowed non-trick) ring was stolen away by Hjulstad multiple times. And I think the back-up husband had a good time, too, though he didn’t even up with Wei-Hwa’s ring in the end.

Hjulstad rewarded them otherwise for their participation. The back-up husband received a pretty pink paper purse, and Wei-Hwa proudly sauntered off with a a lovely pink paper bonnet on his head.

The Portuguese Conspiracy

At Gathering for Gardner 11, a group of Portuguese mathematicians gathered together and announced themselves to be members of The Portuguese Conspiracy. I first got hip to this when Carlotta of the Portuguese Conspiracy finished her talk and pointed out a table which had been taken over by herself and her fellow countrymen. After that, the were no longer individuals, but members of a grand collective, known as the Portuguese Conspiracy.

Being the curious type, I wondered what the ulterior motives of the Portugese Conspiracy were. They never declared it outright, but by their frequent references to history, I suspect they plan to make Portugal (once again) the center of recreational mathematics in the Western World, and possibly for the entire world. And how could a small gang of Portuguese academics manage such an audacious feat? For starters, Portugal now hosts a biennial conference on recreational mathematics, and publishes not one, but two, international journals: one on recreational mathematics, and the other on board games.

I caught Carlos of the Portuguese Conspiracy in a moment away from his co-conspirators and asked him how his conspiracy expected to get people to come to conferences and publish articles in Portuguese. Oh, he told me coyly, everything is done in English, the “international” language. Tell that to an Italian in Rome! After a bit of nudging, I got Carlos of the Portuguese Conspiracy to concede that he, too, is aware that English is not that universal, not even in Europe. I suspect English is the “international” language of recreational mathematics for now. That is, until the Portuguese Conspiracy succeeds in their nefarious plot, whereupon serious scholars of recreational mathematics will have to learn Portuguese, and the next Martin Gardner will be Portuguese.

But the Portuguese Conspiracy had failed to identify a hole in their plan. I noticed that French game historian Lisa Rougetet was hanging with The Portuguese Conspiracy a lot, and often was one of the only non-Portuguese members of their circle. But she doesn’t speak Portuguese! As they say in France, cherchez la femme. Once the Portuguese Conspiracy succeeds in cornering the thought-leaders of recreational mathematics, they may find all the material and conferences are not Portuguese, not English, but rather in the “international” language of French (once again.)

Keep your eyes on those guys, and whatever you do, don’t pay any attention to the California Cabal.

Smart San Jose State Student Engineers Face the Education Bubble

With a mathematically inclined son, Pi Day has been a big day in our household since we discovered it, but it’s been even more significant once we found a like-minded community with which to celebrate it, such as San Jose State’s Math Department. When I checked in with a professor about this year’s event, I found out that tragically, most of the professors didn’t have Friday classes, so they weren’t doing it. But he helpfully forwarded me the invitation from San Jose State’s honors engineering co-ed fraternity, Tau Beta Phi, which had sent the math department an invitation to join them at their celebration/50th anniversary.

I proudly put on my Pi Day t-shirt and Neil and I (and later Peter) went over to join them. Besides pie, they had a contest who could figure out the correct volume of a specific pie — though I don’t know how they determined that later, whether by throwing it in a blender and then measuring it, or calculating its density and then submerging it in water. The prize was the pie itself, which after that, may not be such a great prize after its volume has been accurately determined. There was also a raffle for a Tau Beta Phi sweater. And of course, lots of pie.

I made small talk with the student engineers and made sure to introduce Neil to all the mechanical engineers. To my delight, Neil got along well with the engineers.

It was also interesting to hear all their stories and how education is transforming itself with them within it. San Jose State is one of the few remaining public universities it’s still possible for a middle-class family to pay for with savings. But even so, with its big classes, many of them impacted, most students expect to spend 5 to 6 years getting a degree, whereas at the far pricier private schools (where it may be possible to get a scholarship to offset the insane costs), the administration practically pushes you to get through in 4 or less years — and that theoretically gives you two more years of working life.

The student engineers aren’t worried about their post-college career prospects: the valley’s high-tech recruiters are waiting to snarf up electrical, computer, and mechanical engineers as soon as that diploma hits their hands, if not sooner. And San Jose State, according to the students, has good engineering programs. One student was getting a biomedical engineering degree, which is new for San Jose State — as well as for many of the recruiters. I pointed her to a meetup group I’d heard of, which sounds like it’s trying to hack on making biomedical printers from scratch, thinking she’d might meet like-minded people on that cutting edge of science.

Most interestingly on the practical end, San Jose State is creating a 7-year engineering degree. It’s especially for students who work 40 hour weeks — with a lower per-semester number of credits required, it’s possible to pay your own way through school and life, rather than having school be a hiatus from a reality you hit hard with a gargantuan student loan on your back.

I also mentioned that Neil has turned to taking online college courses and that has been a blessing, much like the San Jose State math department has been. One student’s girlfriend is an online teacher herself, teaching high school mathematics for Stanford’s online high school.

So as my son contemplates college, there’s a lot more in the pictures beyond the traditional university as presented in, say Monsters University. (Kelly thought the event looked a lot like a scene in Monsters University, albeit with the kinds of people you’d see in Big Bang Theory instead of monsters.)

Oh, and by the way, still no one knows what the Physics department does for Pi Day, or if they celebrate it at all.

by Carolyn Bickford

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