It’s the time of year when colleges finally put high school seniors -- and their anxious parents -- out of their collective misery.
By today, most schools have sent out their acceptance and rejection letters. Many selective colleges reported another record year for applications -- which means they turned more students away. But not before collecting their application fees.
Niall Murphy, a high school senior from Los Angeles, spent $700 on college application fees this year. Or, his parents did. The web and the Common Application have made it easy to apply to a bunch of schools at once.
“Because, why not?” Murphy says. “That was the mentality that my parents had going in.”
“Why not?” is one reason applications keep pouring into elite colleges at record rates. And so does money.
Take Harvard. It got 35,000 applications this year. Harvard says it waives the fee for more than 10 percent of applicants. Even so, at $75 a pop, that’s more than $2 million in fees. Director of admissions Marlyn McGrath says that covers a “very small part” of the costs of the admissions process.
But that’s Harvard. A smaller school like Vassar College brought in a smaller windfall -- about $380,000 in fees.
“It’s really such a small item in our budget that it doesn’t make much difference at all,” says Vassar president Catharine Hill.
Applications to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., jumped 20 percent this year -- but fees didn’t.
“We, in fact, waive an application fee for anyone who submits their application online, and that’s how all of our applications are coming in,” says dean of admissions Paul Thiboutot.
The surge in applications is great for business in another way. Appearing more selective attracts more students -- that you can then turn down to appear more selective.
Niall Murphy says one of the first things he looked at was a college’s acceptance rate.
“You want to apply to schools with lower acceptance rates and you want to get into those schools,” he says. “It kind of just becomes about feeling good about yourself.”
He got into Bard College in New York, and five other schools. He’s waiting to hear about financial aid.
So what would the total costs look like for a student applying for college? We tally up the fees and deposits:
Application fees: $37.88 (average). According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of application fees provided by 1,391 ranked colleges in Spring 2012 was $37.88. That is the highest average in the past five years. (In 2011, the average was $37.45) Stanford University had the highest application fee in the nation at $90.
SAT fees: $50. The main SAT test costs $50, and that comes with four free score reports that can be sent to colleges. Any additional score reports cost $11 each. Additionally, the fee for any of the SAT subject test will cost $35 for non-language tests, and $46 for language tests.
ACT fees: $35. The ACT also comes with four free score reports, with additional reports at $11 each. The ACT Plus Writing Test, required by some colleges, costs $50.50.
College visits: Approximately $3,500. The college campus visit is considered an important step in an applicant's selection process, but the travel, food and lodging fees can add up. All can depend on distances and areas of the schools, but Bankrate.com has some tips on ways to save.
Housing deposits: $100-$350. The deposit holds a place for a student's housing on or near campus, varies in cost by college, and is usually non-refundable.
Tuition deposits: $50-$500. This deposit confirms enrollment for a student in a college. It also varies by school, and usually non-refundable.
SAT/ACT tutoring: $125/session. Private tutoring for the tests will range in costs by tutor, and can often be even more (one headline-making tutor was charging $693 a session).
College admissions counseling: $95-$375/hour. According to the Wall Street Journal and the Independent Educational Consultants Association in 2011, private counseling from college-prep advisers cost hundreds of dollars per session.
We begin with an update, on the federal budget-cutting doom known as sequestration. Remember that? One month ago today, Congress and the president let automatic cuts kick in -- amid warnings of uninspected meat, unsafe flying and worker furloughs.
But here's the thing: didn't happen.
On the eve of sequestration, transportation secretary Ray LaHood warned of air travel "calamity" -- that we'd have fewer air traffic controllers watching the skies. "We have a 30-day window," he said.
That window closes today. Reality?
"I think the control tower at JFK in New York is quite safe," says Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. He says the sequester blade has sliced just a few regional air markets. "I don't think you're going to see any meaningful cutback across the entire system. What you will see is a bit of pain, here and there."
In the meantime, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned, pre-sequestration, "there will be disruption" in food inspection, due to furloughed inspectors.
Then, Congress came up with the cash to un-disrupt things.
"It's about as surprising as the fact that Monday follows Sunday." Jack Pitney is a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Whenever there are cuts looming, the bureaucracy will trot out a parade of horribles."
Now, he says, the Obama administration has lost budget credibility. There's now a 'crying wolf' perception.
Thing is, defense analyst Byron Callan at Capital Alpha Partners says, many cuts do hurt. They just take time to bite. Already, two defense contractors have downgraded sales projections due to Pentagon cuts.
"And we continue to see these consolidation efforts and layoff announcements come out of defense contractors as they reposition and resize as well," Callan says.
The point is not that the sky didn't fall. It's that the clouds arrived, and the rain comes later.
At the heart of the immigration debate is the issue of labor. On one side, you have businesses that rely on immigrants because they work for low wages. On the other side, you have U.S. workers and labor unions that worry those immigrants will bring wages down for everyone. The U.S. senators known as "The Gang of Eight" have reportedly reached a deal between the A.F.L.-C.I.O and business leaders over how to pay immigrant workers under a guest worker program. Under the agreement, employers would be required to pay prevailing wages.
So what exactly is a prevailing wage? Let's go back to 1927, when a contractor from Alabama was hired by the federal government to build a veterans hospital in New York. The contractor hired a crew of black construction workers from the South and brought them to Long Island to build the hospital.
"Those workers were paid substantially less than the local workers in the area," says Peter Phillips, a labor economist at the University of Utah. Long Island Rep. Robert Bacon objected to the presence of black workers in his district, so he teamed up with Sen. James Davis to write the Davis-Bacon Act, which was signed into law in 1931. It states that contractors must pay local wages, also known as prevailing wages.
"And so prevailing wages are an effort to create a compromise where outside workers can come in. But when they come in they have to be paid based on local labor standards" says Phillips.
But Davis-Bacon applies only to Federal public works contracts. Under the proposed guest worker program, all workers who come to America under guest visas have to be paid the prevailing wage or the employer wage, whichever is higher.
So how does that prevailing wage get set? James Parrott at the Fiscal Policy Institute says it's done at the local level. "State governments have developed extensive wage payment data. So they use those surveys to determine what prevailing wage should be," says Parrott.
The guest workers will be low-skilled workers who come to work in agriculture, the service industry and construction. High-skilled construction workers will be excluded from the program, at the request of construction unions.
The details of the guest worker program are expected to be unveiled this month when Congress returns to work.
At her dusty Ford dealership in Kentucky, Pauline Wilkes makes a sales pitch while sipping her morning coffee.
“It’s a good deal,” the 64-year-old saleswoman assures her potential customer. “She only has 100,000 miles on her.”
But what really gets Wilkes’ engine running is a big change just down the road. Wilkes is a two-minute drive from the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, home to the 16th president’s famous log cabin. In a few weeks, the sign marking that site will read "Ford Lincoln National Park.”
"It's a way for us to support the national park,” she say, “and it's good for business. People see that sign and they know that Ford supports our presidents, even if they're dead."
Commercial sponsorships at national landmarks are likely to become more common as the federal government attempts to squeeze revenue from wherever it can. The National Park Service has long sold concession rights so businesses can operate inside parks. Those licenses bring in some $60 million a year. Now the Park Service is going one step further by selling naming rights.
Some budget experts say the move could appeal to both parties.
"I think that conservatives support this 100 percent because to the extent that you allow the private sector into the government sector you improve its efficiency," says Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He adds that the sponsorship windfall will offset some of the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the sequester.
"People are looking at billions of dollars in potential,” Hassett says. “I think pretty much every corner of government is going to have a name on it."
The government won't simply sell to the highest bidder. It wants to match monuments with sponsors whose names or logos are appropriate.
"The Statue of Liberty is going to become the Statue of Liberty Mutual, and we also understand that McDonald’s is trying to sponsor the Gateway Arch in St. Louis," Hassett says.
Another deal in the works is Johnson & Johnson's $200 million bid to have Band-Aid sponsor the Wounded Knee Battlefield. The park service will formally announce the program today, April 1.
In his chic, modern apartment in the former East Berlin, Stefan Faulstroh wants to know what tea I want so he can select the appropriate water temperature. He’s an engineer. You wouldn’t have guessed. Makes trains. I wouldn’t want to be so crass as to ask how much he earns but judging by the look of his place, it’s quite a lot. Stefan, though, no longer pays the church tax that used to gobble up four percent of his salary.
Was it really the money, I ask. Or was it loss of faith? No, he says, it was the money. “So now do you sometimes sneak into church nevertheless? At Christmas maybe, or Easter?” Yes, he says, as a matter of fact he does. “Does he feel guilty?” He puts the question for me. “Not really.” But sometimes he wonders if he shouldn’t go back and become a church member again. “Obviously, when you die, no priest is going to come to your funeral so that’s a downside but that’s a few years from now.”
Tall, impressively bald and dressed in a striking tweed suit he says he bought in a church bazaar, Pastor Johann Hinrich Claussen, Dean of the Hamburg region, says he keeps an eye out for tax dodgers. Especially wealthy tax dodgers. And gives me a piercing look as if I might be one myself.
The figures, he agrees, are worrying. Christians -- Protestants and Catholics combined -- are leaving their churches at a rate of about 300,000 people a year. That is a shame in itself but it also means a drop in income. So his church is trying to diversify its revenues in order to keep maintaining its churches and paying its ministers, deacons and so on. But, he says, Germany should keep its church tax.
“Social-Democrats and Liberals invented this tax a hundred years ago in order to make the people pay for their church, not only the patrons or the king or the Kaiser,” he says. “It was invented to democratize the church. That’s still an old and I think good idea.”
“Taxes are never fair,” he tells me. “Nobody who pays them thinks they are in any case. But at least this tax takes more from people who earn more and less from people who earn less and nothing from people who earn nothing.”
But what to do when those who can pay, don’t? Last year, Germany’s Catholic Bishops’ issued an uncompromising edict. A member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church, it read. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they “give some sign of repentance.”
The Protestants are more accommodating. As Wolfgang Georgsdorf, a lapsed Protestant and non-taxpayer, testifies.
When his mother died, he wanted the pastor who had been his and his brother’s religious teacher to come and hold a service. He admitted his mother hadn’t been in the Protestant Church for years. The pastor thought about it a bit. Then said that he thought she’d quit because of the money. That she couldn’t afford it. That he understood. He held the service.
There are others who, when it’s time to meet their maker, will be able to stretch out in their coffins with great moral ease.
Sebastien Wendland, for example. Who says he’s happy to pay the tax even though he’s not much of a church-goer. He likes what the church does. He thinks its schools and kindergartens and hospitals and so on provide an alternative to the State sector that’s good for democracy.
As a marketing director for a beer company, he travels quite a bit in the U.S. and doesn’t much like what he’s seen of the way they fund churches there.
In the States you see churches that sometimes “look a little like they have too much of a consumer orientation,” says Wendland. “Where they play rock music and do all sorts of crazy stuff. I have nothing against rock music but I would (prefer) a church that is doing the right thing for the community and for God but not do stuff to attract a sort of clientele.”
James Holmes had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors called that a publicity ploy. Twelve people died and another 58 were wounded in the attack.
Novartis lost its bid to patent one of its cancer drugs. Indian authorities say the drug is too much like an earlier version. Novartis says the ruling may dampen drug companies' willingness to work in India. Others say the ruling will help make less expensive drugs available to the world's poor.
Decisions like whether to watch a grisly injury on replay underscore the fact that with less gatekeeping and more personal choice, we're all stuck with wrangling our own curiosity.