2016 Pickens High School STAR Student Banquet Talk

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Back in 2004, I graduated from Pickens High School in Jasper, Georgia. I was honored as the STAR student that year by a banquet hosted by the Jasper Optimist Club. This year, I was invited back to the banquet as the guest speaker. The banquet recognized the 10 seniors with the highest SAT scores who also had GPAs in the top 10% of their graduating class.  I spoke on the importance of living a life that tells a good story. Here’s a video of the talk for anyone interested.

Is Christian Scholarship Systematically Liberally Biased?

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I recently had a long discussion with a friend about Christian scholarship. The conversation revolved around the idea that many modern Biblical scholars will tell you that the Bible isn’t really as great as Christians believe it to be. Arguments range from “the Gospels weren’t written until 80 years after Christ’s death and therefore couldn’t have been written by the apostles” to “Biblical accounts conflict with historical accounts, meaning the Bible cannot be accurate” to “The account of Jesus in the Gospel of John is irreconcilable with the accounts in the synoptic gospels…meaning that the Bible is contradictory, flawed, and most definitely not divinely inspired.” In the aftermath of this conversation, I did a lot of thinking on whether there is a bias by-and-large amongst Biblical scholars and critics in the present day. However, this thought process ran against one of my core life rules…which is “never to assume another person’s motivations.” In my experience, trying to figure out why someone did something is nearly impossible without knowing that person’s history. So, I stopped that thought process and let it rest for a while.

This week, I had a conversation with a faculty member at the college I work for about the idea of beginning a Ph D program. During our conversation, I told him of how I had considered seminary for much of my life, but decided during my undergraduate that it wasn’t the path I wanted to take. This led to some discussion about the current state of Christian scholarship, and my motives for changing my mind about parish ministry. During the conversation, he made an interesting statement that I wanted to write down for future consideration. However, given the group of friends that I have, I thought some of you might have some good input on it as well.

As we were talking, the idea emerged that a core requirement for attaining a doctorate and becoming a legitimate scholar in our western system is to “contribute to the body of knowledge” in a particular field. However, not all contributions are viewed as equal in the field of scholarship. In fact, with its structure of peer-reviewed journals, fellowships, endowed chairs, prizes, tenure-tracks, and politics throughout, scholarship in the present day is perhaps one of the least egalitarian of all professions. The concept of “contributing to the body of knowledge” in a field inherently assumes that one must produce “new” information. While anyone who writes a decent dissertation and passes all their tests can get a Ph D, the most successful and influential scholars seem to be those who present information that is not only “new”…but is also compelling in some other way. In the physical sciences, this often takes the form of a new technological development. In math and economics, it is often a new model for understanding why a certain phenomenon takes place. In business, it could be a new means of understanding how incentives effect decision-making. However, things get a little hazy when one looks to the humanities.

In mathematics, a scholar who finds a new means of proving an existing theorem that has never been considered before is praised, lauded, and might get an award. However, the English scholar who develops “A Fresh Look at Hemmingway’s Contribution to American Literature” doesn’t get nearly as much credit. Even so, if one looks through a list of dissertation titles from recent recipients of Ph D’s in History or English from a major university, it’s almost laughable how many have similar themes. From “A New Perspective on How the Vietnam War Influenced American Educational Systems” to “Further Essays on Chaucer,” re-evaluating existing works seems to be the bulwark of historical and hermeneutics (textual interpretation) research today. This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Take history, for example. Though history is happening all the time…current events usually fall into the realm of other disciplines. Political scientists and policy analysts study current political developments, geographers and and geologists study how the earth is changing, military scientists study wars, cultural anthropologists and sociologists study human cultures. History gets the short end of the stick, only getting to look at these things after everyone else is done with them. The same is true of English. Authors may become celebrities, and poets may be revered, but the English scholar is stuck studying what other people write and seeking new interpretations of that writing. Given that most every significant work has been reviewed, analyzed, chewed up, and spit out by literary critics and middle schoolers doing book reports alike, there’s not much left for legitimate scholars except to try to build entirely new perspectives on existing works.

Unlike the sciences, there’s little room for empirical research in english or history. Last I looked, it’s tough to do a regression analysis on the Grapes of Wrath or The Development of the US Space Program. Scholars are stuck simply attempting to devise new interpretations and perspectives on past events and works. I feel that up-and-coming Biblical and Christian scholars are forced into a similar mold as the historians and english scholars of the world. In essence, Biblical and Christian scholars are taking a source text and some historical events and trying to correctly analyze and interpret them. As these events and the text of Scripture are some of the most analyzed in history, new scholars could be forced to approach Scripture and Christian history with a lens of seeking “a new perspective” in order to make themselves known. No one is going to get a promotion or an award for a paper titled “Further Evidence that the Apostle John Actually Wrote the Gospel According to John” when it’s put up against “The Biblical Lie…Is Johannine Literature Actually Johannine After All?” I mean, which of those would you want to read…the one that simply tells you what you’ve heard for the entirety of your life, or the more provocative, extremely compelling “new take” that could debunk the Bible? When was the last time you saw a CNN article with the title “New Research Provides Additional Proof that Solomon Wrote Ecclesiastes?”

Through no fault of their own, modern scholars of Christianity and hermeneutics could be forced to find “new interpretations” or “fresh ideas” that are often counter to Christian orthodoxy and historical hermeneutics simply to have successful careers. If this were true, over time, the body of literature for Christian history and Scriptural hermeneutics would become more and more saturated with ideas that diverge from the traditional. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that’s not what I’m going for. I’m just trying to understand why it seems that every piece of “legitimate scholarship” I see that relates to Scripture or Christian history seems to be contrary to historical interpretations and orthodoxy. It’s rare that I run into a scholar saying “historical interpretations are right, and here’s why.” This explanation seems to make a lot of sense to me, given my understanding of the current state of western scholarship.

So, thoughts…feedback…scathing critiques? Thanks for reading!

The Higher Education Bubble

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I recently had a conversation with a co-worker about the current state of the U.S. economy. This is always a fun topic, as he is working on his master’s in economics and is pretty well-read in the subject. After a long, serpentine discussion on the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act and complex derivatives, our conversation happened upon the collapse of the internet and housing “bubbles” in the late ’90s and early 2000’s and their role in the current economic challenges. This topic prompted me to cite an article1 I had read that week referring to a potential “higher education bubble” in the United States. After much discussion, my coworker and I decided that a higher education bubble probably does exist in some form. Upon that discovery, our discussion turned to why that bubble might exist and ways to avoid having that bubble burst in your own life. That conversation led me to do a little bit of research. Here is a short compilation of my thoughts coming out of that conversation and what I’ve found thus far. This post will be made in 2 parts, the first of which will make the case for a “bubble” and the second of which will provide means of avoiding the bubble.

What’s a “Bubble?”

For a long time, I didn’t have a strong grasp of what exactly was meant by an economic “bubbles.” If you’re in that situation, it’s a pretty simple concept (at least as I understand it). The basic idea is that a “bubble” is created when large volumes of a particular good or service are sold/traded at prices that are much higher than they should be. Buyers/investors during the .com and housing bubbles were working under the assumption that internet startups and homes were worth the money they were paying for/investing in them. This assumption was supported by the thousands of similar transactions taking place around them. When the “bubbles burst” in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the values of assets (shares in .com companies and homes) fell drastically. In some cases, this left buyers/investors with no value at all or negative value (more debt than equity). In retrospect, economists say the “intrinsic” or “real” value of these assets was much lower than the amount paid for them. This was due to a number of factors which I will not even attempt to begin delineating. The short of it is, there were “bubbles,” they “burst,” and thousands of people were out thousands of dollars.

To illustrate, let’s suppose an investor put $100,000 of his own cash into Pets.com back in 1999 for shares of stock/ownership. The fact that he was one of thousands of investors doing the same thing made it seem quite the reasonable thing to do. At some point shortly after that investment, the company discovered it had a non-existent business model and was selling pet supplies for less than it cost to buy them and ship them. The company went bankrupt and was dissolved…and those stocks are now worth $0. Thankfully, the investor does not have any debt and therefore must simply eat the loss. Sadly, he same is not true for a hypothetical couple who purchased a home in 2001 with a $250,000 loan. Everyone else in the neighborhood was getting their homes at a similar price, so why not? However, the massive demand for housing and the ridiculous availability of credit had pushed the home to that price from an actual value of $180,000 one years before. When the “bubble burst,” the home dropped back to its actual value. Now, even if the couple is able to sell the house for its full value of $180,000, they’d have to find $70,000 in cash to pay off the rest of the loan. They have negative equity…and are “underwater” or “upside down” on their mortgage.

Economic bubbles can ruin the best plans and intentions, and often come as a surprise since so many people made the same decision. So, is there a higher education bubble? Are hundreds or thousands of people paying more for college than they should be? I think there might be…in some circumstances. Why? Well, here are some “findings.” Hopefully they will help you get an idea of the current situation.

The Education “Bubble”

Apart from intangible benefits (the “friends” I’ll have for life that I met there), the intrinsic value of a college degree is determined by how much money the degree allows an individual to earn than he or she would otherwise not earn without it. Basically, using our house example, it’s the degree’s “resale value.” The question at hand, then, is whether the amount paid for a college degree exceeds the amount of money that will be earned by obtaining that degree. To make a fair evaluation, those numbers must be determined. That, however, is a sticky calculation fit for an actual economist. As I am not one, I’m going to use some average numbers I found from a number of varied sources to try to get a rough idea of what the actual numbers might look like.

So, how much does college actually cost?

The tuition costs alone to attend college span a vast array of possible numbers depending on the type of school, its reputation, the student’s residency status, and a number of other factors. The College Board website cites numbers ranging from a few thousand dollars a year for a public, 2-year school to upwards of $40,000 a year for a private, nonprofit school. However, tuition is just the beginning of the equation. One has to add in room and board for on or off-campus living, book costs, student fees, moving expenses, transportation costs to-and-from campus, parking, and, of course, ramen noodles. Also, as I’m sure my aspiring economist friend would tell me, one must factor in the opportunity cost of the wages missed out on due to spending one’s time in a classroom instead of in a job. When it comes down to it, there’s not an easily-determined across-the-board number to represent the cost of college. However, there is a number available that I believe is usable for this particular endeavor.

A CNN article2 last fall cited numbers provided by the Project on Student Debt12 showing that the average college student pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a public or nonprofit private college or university graduates with $24,000 in student loan debt. This sounds about right given the average tuition numbers cited by The College Board9 and the ratios of public to private to 2-year students given by the National Center for Educational Statistics10. Though it may not include many of the aforementioned factors, this number provides a somewhat startling picture of how college costs can affect a graduate long after a degree has been obtained. I will use this number moving forward as a reference for argument’s sake.

What is the value of a college degree?
Now that we’ve gotten a rough idea of the cost burden of college on a recent graduate, we can contrast this $24,000 number with a New York Times article from last month3 that cites a Rutgers University study8 that found the average college student graduating with a Bachelor’s degree earns just $27,000 annually in their first job. This number may surprise some (though not me…my first job out of college wasn’t too far from there) given the oft-quoted Bureau of Labor Statistics number which states that Bachelors Degree holders make, on average, around $1,000 a week ($52,000/yr). However, given that the Census Bureau11 reported the average age of Americans being 36.8 in 2009, the $52,000 number is slanted towards a mid-career holder of a bachelor’s degree.

So, graduates make $27,000, right? Well, this assumes that all graduates immediately find jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year4 that the unemployment rate among all people with Bachelor’s degrees is 5.5%. Comparatively, the aforementioned CNN article2 pegged the rate among recent graduates at 8.7% in 2009. I would venture a guess that it is higher now, given that in the UK, it’s currently at 20% 5,6,7. When all these things are considered, the argument for an education bubble begins to take shape.

Where does this leave us?

I don’t currently plan on doing any net present-value calculations to provide an actual number for comparison, but I think these rough numbers send a strong message. It’s hard to get rid of $24,000 in debt making $27,000 a year. Whether we like it or not, market forces have combined in such a way that the value of an undergraduate degree just isn’t what it used to be. Simultaneously, the cost of one continues to increase. So, should you abandon college altogether? Well, the main redeeming factor is that things are worse for those who don’t have a college degree. That same Bureau of Labor Statistics report4 shows that, on average, unemployment nearly doubles and wages are cut in half for those without a degree. I tend to browse the job markets a good bit just to keep apprised of what’s out there, and it’s hard to find a job that doesn’t require at least some college. So, the looming questions are “Can I get a college degree, but still avoid the bubble?” and “If so, how?” Well, those are pretty open-ended question…and I’ll be attempting to tackle it in my next post, so check back soon!

Sources

1 http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/the-college-solution/2011/05/03/higher-education-bubble-will-burst
2http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/22/pf/college/student_loan_debt/index.htm
3http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/business/economy/19grads.html
4http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
5http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8283862/Graduate-unemployment-hits-15-year-high.html
6http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/26/fifth-graduates-unemployed-ons
7http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12286264
8http://www.heldrich.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/content/Work_Trends_May_2011.pd
9http://www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/add-it-up/4494.html
10http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
11http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/STTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-qr_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_S0101&-ds_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false&-state=st&-CONTEXT=st
12http://projectonstudentdebt.org/

 

How to Not Pay for Your Graduate Degree

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I work for a college within a public university. My primary job is to advertise the college and its programs to a variety of target markets. One of my primary target markets is students…both current and potential. As such, I’m always trying to find ways to make our degree programs more attractive.

One of the most marketable aspects of our college is the fact that we offer a number of graduate assistantships to our students. These positions are quite common at colleges around the country. However, I find that many students don’t understand what, exactly, these positions entail or how to get them. I had no idea what they were until I started working for the college. So, here’s an insider’s look at how assistantships work and why you should do everything in your power to get one.

The Benefits of Graduate Assistantships
Graduate Assistantships are, without a doubt, one of the sweetest deals out there. For an average of 15-25 hours of work per week, a graduate assistant receives either a full or partial waver of all tuition for a semester. In addition, many graduate assistants also receive a monthly stipend. At Georgia State, policy states that this stipend can be no less than $5,000 per year ($2,000 each for Fall and Spring and $1,000 for summer). This means that graduate assistants at GSU usually make around $500/month on top of the tuition waver. This number can go much higher depending on the hours required, the difficulty of the work, the student’s program of study, and the departmental budget. Ph. D students usually receive the best stipends ($2,000+ a month).

Here are some numbers on assistantships. A graduate assistant that works 20 hours a week for the fall semester (17 weeks) works 340 hours total. A minimal assistantship at GSU would provide $2,000 in stipend + $3,840 in tuition waver (~$17/hr) for an in-state student and $2,000 in stipend + $14,400 in tuition waver (~$51.25/hr) for an out-of-state student.

Types of Assistantships
There are three basic types of graduate assistantships: Graduate Research Assistantships (GRAs), Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs), and Graduate Administrative Assistantships (GAAs). GRAs are perhaps the best known type of assistantship. A GRA usually works under an individual professor assisting with his or her research. In the sciences, this often means working in a lab and writing part or all of a research paper. In the arts, it often means assisting with data collection through interviews, surveys, and trips to the library or writing part or all of a research paper. These positions are great for students looking to begin building a CV, as they can often lead to having one’s name on a published paper. However, they can often take up more than the “weekly allotment” of hours assigned, as papers and research tend to “broaden” over time.

GTAs, in contrast, help to instruct other students at the college. For more advanced students, this often means teaching a full course. For others, it means giving a lecture here and there or running a breakout group. Sometimes, it can mean simply grading essays so a professor doesn’t have to. Like GRAs, GTAs are great for building one’s CV. Teaching a subject often provides a deeper level of understanding of the subject matter to the student…aiding said student in his or her own program of study. These can also often take up more than the “weekly allotment” of hours assigned, as grading papers and tests by hand and preparing lectures can take a lot of time.

The final type of graduate assistant is a GAA. While not as well known and perhaps not as plentiful as GRAs or GTAs, GAA positions are great to have. The primary reason for this is that they basically have no boundaries on what they can entail. GAAs assist the faculty, staff, and administration of a college with its day-to-day operations. Responsibilities of a GAA can be as simple as helping to file papers or as complex as helping to code the college website. A GAA might create posters to put up around the college advertising events, or they might help to plan and run the events themselves. A GAA is basically a short-term part-time college staff member.

Graduate Assistants from the College’s View

Having worked for a college for a while, I can say that our college (and I imagine many others) is run with a “skeleton crew.” There are just enough faculty and staff to get nearly everything done that needs to be done roughly a week to a month after it should have been done. We are simply short-staffed…and don’t have the budget to be able to hire more full-time employees. For this reason, graduate assistants are excellent investments to help us get work done without a large expenditure. We have a 3″ binder’s worth of paperwork that we have to fill out whenever we make a new full-time hire. In comparison, hiring a graduate assistant requires a few sheets of paper and a couple of signatures. Also, in our case, the tuition waver does not cost the college anything, as all tuition goes to the university itself. A graduate assistant that works 20 hours a week for the fall semester (17 weeks – 340 hours total) will receive $2,000 + a tuition waver. From the college’s point of view, that’s only $5.88 an hour out-of-pocket. Given the minimal cost and great benefit to the college of hiring a graduate assistant, they are very attractive investments.

Many colleges have a line in their admissions application that asks if you would like to be considered for assistantships. Some colleges even have a full application process just for assistantships. In my experience, faculty members aren’t always as “on the ball” as one might expect them to be. They are usually incredibly busy with the courses they teach and the research they do. This means they often don’t respond to (or even read) emails from the college administration concerning things like requests for assistantships. This leads to a lot of missed deadlines. That said, the assistantships that are advertised to incoming students may have been requested weeks in advance and are often positions that have been in existence for a while. As these positions are advertised to and usually applied for by the entire incoming class (who isn’t going to put “yes” on that question?), they are often extremely competitive. Once these positions are gone, many students just “give up” on an assistantship opportunity.

How to Get a Graduate Assistantship

As previously mentioned, the graduate assistantships offered to incoming students are quite sparse and very competitive. Faculty and staff often don’t have the time or the desire to seek out graduate assistants on their own. However, there is a great benefit to a college to hire graduate assistants. That’s where you come in. You’re a college student. You have a plethora of time on your hands. You have no money. What better way for you to spend your time than trying to talk every faculty and staff member you can find into giving you an assistantship?

The first step is to make sure you’ve got an accurate and up-to-date resume or CV that focuses in on the type of assistantship you want. Next, visit your department’s website and identify the individuals that you’d be interested in working under. For GRAs and GTAs, those individuals are probably faculty members. For GAAs, you’re looking for the department staff or administration. If you have noticed a glaring weakness in your department’s level of service in a particular area (e.g. – website not updated in 2 years, takes 4 weeks to see an advisor), target those areas specifically. They are probably under-staffed. Next, send an email to that faculty or staff member informing them that you are a student in their department and would like to meet with them. While faculty and staff sometimes don’t read emails from one another, they will rarely ignore emails from students. If you receive an email back asking for a reason for the meeting, be honest! Tell them you’re interested in talking to them about a potential GRA/GTA/GAA position, attach your resume, and sell your qualifications. If you do get a meeting set up, then go to the scheduled meeting and do the same thing. Make sure to emphasize what the tuition waver would mean to you. That provides a personal connection and will help get them “on your side.”

If you find that the individual you contact is staunchly against giving you an assistantship, ask them if they know of anyone else in the department who might be interested. Follow up with any leads they provide. If you exhaust the leads within your department, then look laterally to other departments within your college and do the same. Our college prefers to hire our own students as graduate assistants. If you find nothing at the department level, then move up and begin looking at the college or dean’s office levels. If you find nothing there and are at a university, then contact faculty/staff within other colleges (by now you should be getting good at this). They just might have an opening for you.

I’d wager that most graduate students never even consider trying to “sell their services” in the form of an assistantship. There’s really little to no competition for you if you’re willing to put in the effort to try to find an assistantship. Even so, it won’t always work out. Budgets are tightening on an annual basis. However, our college tends to do what it can to hang on to competent graduate assistants, as they’re not always easy to find. So, the sooner you find a position, the better!