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Education Rundown: College Bound, If You Can

The columns at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
St. Louis Public Radio file photo
More than 100 degree program will be eliminated at Missouri colleges and universities as part of a cost-savings review ordered by Gov. Jay Nixon. (flickr/Adam Proctor)

Every other week, we like to share stories that look at trends in education here and across the country. This week, college seemed to be on the minds of a lot of reporters.

What if?

Here's a provocative question from Politico: "Can free college save American cities?" People in Kalamazoo, Mich., are hoping that the answer is yes. Back in 2005, several anonymous philanthropists vowed to pay college tuition for all students who graduate from Kalamazoo schools. The Kalamazoo promise was -- and is -- a dramatic, visionary attempt not just to save kids but also a city in precarious decline. Now, almost a decade and $50 million later, the Kalamazoo Promise has certainly not solved all the city's problems, but it has changed lives and futures (especially for many African-American students), helped physically transform the city and, most of all, reignited a community's "love affair with itself.” And isn't that half the battle?

Degrees of difficulty

The Atlantic asks a question that perplexes everyone from worried high-schoolers to their overanxious parents: Is college really harder to get into than it used to be? The answer is: yes -- and no.

"As it turns out, getting into college actually isn’t any harder than it was a decade ago. It’s just that the odds of admission to your particular college may have decreased."

Top-tier colleges and universities do have more applicants who are highly qualified. In the olden days, ambitious high-schoolers might apply to three, four, maybe even five different schools. Today, thanks to a little something called the Common App, students can easily apply to 10 to 15 different schools -- and they do. Of course, that makes the schools look more selective because they are accepting a smaller percentage of applicants than they once did.

In fact, the New York Times reported recently that Stanford admitted only 5 percent of applicants this year -- a new low -- and single-digit acceptance rates are increasingly common at elite universities. The University of Chicago has accepted only 8 percent of applicants; a few years ago, it took an average of 40 percent.

Complicating the issue even more, spots in elite (and even not so elite) American colleges and universities are increasingly sought by foreign students, making the applicant pool a global pool. But the good news in all this remains: Good students still get into good colleges. 

What can we afford?

Credit dleafy | sxc.hu
Parents are often surprised at how much money colleges expect them to contribute to their children's education.

While we are on the subject of college, the New York Times lays out "what you don't know about financial aid (but should)." Parents, the story notes, frequently go into sticker shock when they discover what their financial responsibility is expected to be; it's not unusual for families with a $60,00 annual income to be expected to contribute 20 percent of their income (and a portion of their assets as well). Some schools advertise themselves as "need-blind": A family's economic status won't affect whether a student is admitted or not. It sounds good in practice -- until families realize that a "need-blind" acceptance doesn't necessarily come with a promise of financial aid:

"If a college calculates that a student’s need (price minus ability to pay equals need) is $30,000, it might offer only $15,000 in an aid package, leaving families with difficult choices — to make up the rest with private bank loans, go to a less expensive school, or even postpone education."

No wonder it's sometimes called a "hollow promise."

And the winner is ....

And if you're looking for the most underrated college in Missouri, according to Business Insider, here it is: Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. It's acceptance rate is 89 percent; in-state tuition is $9,510.

The bi-literate brain

And now for something completely different, to steal from Monty Python. One of my greatest pleasures is reading, specifically novels. Recently, I was captivated by Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," all 784 absorbing pages of it. But that kind of deep reading may be threatened, warns the Washington Post in a scary story, "Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming." Though we spend an estimated five hours a day reading screens -- computers, tablets, phones -- we tend to skim, looking for keywords and points of information and hopping around with links. We become impatient with longer, denser, more involved sentences. And, more crucially and somewhat counterintuitively, researchers are discovering, our comprehension goes down when we read screens instead of paper pages. The thing is, there's no going back. Schools are going to have teach kids to do both -- and to do both well.  But somehow I have the sneaking suspicion that the readership for "The Corrections," or "Middlemarch" for that matter, is rapidly shrinking.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.