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Colleges pledge to graduate more low-income students

Thu, 2014-12-04 02:00

Hundreds of college leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. Thursday, armed with ideas to tackle one of higher education’s thorniest issues.  Just 1 in 10 people from low-income families has a college degree by age 25, according to the White House,  compared to half of people from wealthier families.

This is the second summit the Obama Administration has held this year that focuses on getting more low-income kids across the college finish line.  

Among the participants is Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, in Washington, D.C., where only around 35-40 percent of the school’s low-income students graduate on time. The college aims to raise that to 60 percent.  

One step is a new partnership with D.C. Public Schools to better prepare students in math.

“We get a lot of students who want to be nurses, but they have no idea how much math and science nurses have to have, so they’re unable to do well in those courses,” McGuire says. “If we could prepare students better starting in middle school and high school, we’d have better completion rates in college.”

Other initiatives announced today focus on improving college counseling in high schools, where the average counselor serves hundreds of students and has little training in college advising.

“Often school counselors only have their own personal experience to draw from,” says Alice Anne Bailey with the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit group that works with southern states to improve public education.

The group’s College and Career Counseling Initiative trains school counselors in 14 states to help students through the process of preparing for and applying to college. Today the group announced an expansion of that program.

At the college level, leaders pledged to work together to help students graduate once they get in the door. The University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities, pledged to graduate an additional 68,000 students in the next decade.

The alliance was created to share ideas, says Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University.  

“We’re trying to actually produce real evidence of what works, as opposed to just doing this shotgun approach of everybody’s going to make a commitment and try something,” Becker says.

One approach that’s catching on: big data.

In a little over a decade, Georgia State has raised its graduation rate from around 30 percent to more than 50 percent, Becker says, partly by analyzing patterns to predict which students are at risk of dropping out, and then stepping in to help them. 

A separate group of 14 state college and university systems also plans to use so-called predictive analytics to help students stay on track, according to the White House.

Trinity Washington University’s Pat McGuire had been critical of the Obama Administration’s previous efforts. The first summit in January favored Ivy League colleges and other elite schools, she says.

 “Just because a school is wealthy and prestigious doesn’t mean they’ll do a good job with a low-income student,” says McGuire. 

And just because hundreds of college leaders pledge to improve college completion rates doesn't mean it will be easy to move the needle.

The issues that get between students and college degrees have never been more complex or expensive to resolve. 

NASA's unmanned test flight is a step toward Mars

Thu, 2014-12-04 02:00

The spacecraft Orion was set to launch on Thursday after 10 years of planning, though it was eventually scrubbed due to weather conditions and issues with rocket valves.

The idea behind Orion is to eventually get astronauts all the way to Mars.

But a successful launch would also symbolize NASA’s exit from the more mundane aspects of space travel.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon predicted the space shuttle would “revolutionize transportation into near space by routinizing it,” and that is what happened.

Phil McAlister, director of commercial space flight at NASA, said "it’s still very hard to do, but it had become a little routine over the years.”

So routine that the shuttle program was axed, and we now pay Russia over $70 million each time we put an astronaut in their Soyuz craft for a ride to the International Space Station. It’s a relationship so far unsoured by growing U.S.-Russia friction.

"I think for now, we have seen space be outside of those normal political tensions, and I think that's really good," McAlister says.

Private American companies like SpaceX hope to send humans to the ISS, just 260 miles above us, for a fraction of the cost. Doug Stanley, the President of the National Institute of Aerospace says an Orion mission to Mars, which is tens of millions of miles away, is still very much a galactic dream.

"The biggest problem we have now is not just funding, but a lack of direction and decision-making and leadership," says Stanley.

To say nothing of the nonexistent pressure from the public.

The solution to rising healthcare costs could be simple

Thu, 2014-12-04 02:00

One reason why healthcare spending continues climbing is our fascination with all that’s shiny and new—the blockbuster drug and the latest in laser surgery.

But what if the key to improving health and lowering cost is hidden in plain sight?

The Peterson Center on Healthcare — which is launching Thursday — thinks that is the case.  

To that end, the Center will act like some crusty, old baseball scout freezing his tuchus off on the bleachers.

They'll be hunting for high quality/low cost best practices, says Executive Director Jeffrey Selberg.

“The question is finding them, validating them and then figuring out how to facilitate the rapid adoption across the country,” he says.

Selberg says the Institute of Medicine has found it takes 17 years to spread a good idea across healthcare.

With $200 million from its parent, the Peterson Foundation, the Center promises to speed that up, and help make adoption easy.  

Avalere Health’s Dan Mendelson says the Center comes at an opportune time.

“There is really no consensus right now on what to do about the cost issue and how the system needs to be changed to improve quality and reduce costs simultaneously,” he says.

To avoid being just the latest in a long line of shiny new things, the Center must do what many have struggled to do before, get good ideas to stick.

She's got a really expensive ticket to ride

Thu, 2014-12-04 02:00

On Thursday morning, the European Central Bank announced it would keep its main interest rate at 0.05%, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The announcement keeps the interest rate at a record low.


The number of notable deaths involving New York City police, of the 12 since 1990 examined by the New York Times, in which officers were cleared of all charges. One of those cases involved Eric Garner. A Staten Island grand jury declined Wednesday to charge the officer who put Garner in the choke hold that lead to his death, spurring protests throughout the city.

$200 million

That's how much funding the Peterson Center on Healthcare, which launches Thursday, has received from its parent organization. With healthcare costs on the rise, the Center believes the solution might be pretty simple. Their goal is to find high quality/low cost best practices, and then adopt their usage across the country.

41 percent

The portion of Staten Islanders supported criminal charges in Garner's death, compared to 64 percent in the rest of New York City. That's according to a survey featured on FiveThirtyEight, which also found Staten Island residents were more supportive of police overall, and about 60 percent of those surveyed felt officers treated people of all races equally. Just 31 percent of people from the other four boroughs agreed.

$70 million

The U.S. Space Program now pays Russia over $70 million each time an astronaut catches a ride in their Soyuz craft to the International Space Station.


That's about what charitable organizations pay about a pound of surplus food, compared to $2 for the same food at retail, Slate reported. That's one of many efficiencies in holiday food drives: sorting and inspecting all those cans consumes more resources than the food itself saves, and a lot of the food ends up going uneaten anyway. Overall, you might be better off donating money. 


That's the number of people in North Korea allowed to have the name "Jong-un," according to the New York Times. Anyone with that given name has had to give it up since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011.

Robots invade holidays ... but don't take over

Wed, 2014-12-03 13:56

When it comes to this holiday season, the future is now.

"We've been talking about robot helpers in the home for decades.... And we're kind of finally getting there," says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

A company called ECOVACS recently sold 70,000 robotic vacuums in one day. What's more, Amazon will use its new Kiva robots to help ship packages on time this holiday season.

But that doesn't mean robots are ready to take over yet. According to Johnson, artificial intelligence just isn't there yet. Just ask Ryan Calo at the University of Washington.

"It is a non-trivial task for the robot even to understand what is a part of your desk," Calo says.

If robots can't figure out how to organize your desk, we probably don't need to worry about the robot apocalypse just yet.

Who's coming home for the holidays? Robots

Wed, 2014-12-03 13:56

The bulk of the holiday season is in the future, but it's also in the future.

"We've been talking about robot helpers in the home for decades... And we're kind of finally getting there," says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

A company called ECOVACS recently sold 70,000 robotic vacuums in one day. What's more, Amazon will use their new Kiva robots to help ship packages on time this holiday season.

But that doesn't mean robots are ready to take over yet. According to Johnson, artificial intelligence just isn't there yet. Just ask Ryan Calo at the University of Washington.

"It is a non-trivial task for the robot even to understand what is a part of your desk," Calo says.

If robots can't figure out how to organize your desk, we probably don't need to worry about the robot apocalypse just yet.

York & Fig: The House on Meridian Street

Wed, 2014-12-03 11:02

Gentrification often comes with, well, let's call 'em "uncomfortable feelings." There can be a kind of culture clash between the people who lived in the neighborhood before it was hot, and the new folks moving in  — who often have more money and different tastes.

As neighborhoods gentrify, house prices rise. Some homeowners take advantage and cash out, while others buy high. 

Marketplace's Noel King has been looking at this dynamic at a house on Meridian Street in Highland Park. with three "generations" of owners going back 25 years.



Inside the 'investor economy'

Wed, 2014-12-03 11:00

What do record amounts of corporate debt, a continuing rally of American stocks and a precipitous decline in commodity prices all have in common? Investors. 

Marilyn Cohen of Envision Capital Management says low interest rates have been great for bond sellers and haven't scared away bond buyers. Alex Bryan at Morningstar investment research says commodities are a different story – with oil falling, they look a little scary right now. And Quincy Krosby, a market strategist for Prudential Financial,  says the portfolio rebalancing that happens between these asset classes also happens between stocks, at the end of every year.


Highlights from the Fed's beige book

Wed, 2014-12-03 11:00

The Federal Reserve released the beige book today, which is its periodic look at the U.S. economy on a regional basis, released eight time per year.

There are always great tidbits in there that the Wall Street Journal pulls out so we don't have to.

Here are some highlights:

  • In Pennsylvania, analysts said this may be the first year in which a majority of households eat their turkey and pumpkin pie at restaurants rather than at home.
  • Logistics and delivery companies in the Atlanta region said recent growth was driven mostly by e-commerce. Duh.
  • And average daily hotel room rates in Southern California are back to where they were before the recession, but holiday bookings by Western Europeans are down from last year.

Come on, how could you not love the Fed?

Why temporary tax breaks remain temporary

Wed, 2014-12-03 11:00

Congress is working on extending a number of expiring tax breaks. These temporary tax cuts are very important to business; some are for research and development, others let companies write off investments in equipment or facilities. 

Corporations really want to see them extended. But nothing’s free in Washington.

“These temporary provisions become very efficient tools for members of Congress to raise money, ” says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor. He says that members of Congress want to keep these tax breaks temporary so they can tell corporate donors: Give us campaign contributions so we can stay in office and renew your tax breaks. This keeps lobbyists busy too, according to Lessig. 

“So everybody inside the beltway wins in this Christmas gift process, which we call the extension of these temporary provisions,”  he says.

There are other reasons the tax breaks are temporary. For one, Congress can’t decide which ones should be made permanent.

“Those require politically difficult decisions, compromise between Democrats and Republicans," says Len Burman, director of the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center. "And those are things that Congress isn’t good at these days.”

Also, if the tax cuts were permanent, Congress would need a permanent way to pay for them. With tax hikes, or spending reductions.  And keep in mind, Congress is only considering an extension of the tax breaks through this year.

“This has to be taken up again next year and hopefully with a better outcome,” says Chuck Marr, director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What if every travel day was as bad as Thanksgiving?

Wed, 2014-12-03 10:25

Imagine if every week was Thanksgiving at the biggest airports in the U.S.

That is exactly where we are headed, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a group that represents city tourism bureaus, hotels, and other industry groups.

The association says that within the next six years, the 30 biggest airports in the U.S. — which account for 70 percent of air passenger traffic — will see at least one day a week of spiking congestion, equivalent to what we typically see on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 

The report says some airports have already hit that milestone, including Chicago's Midway, Las Vegas' McCarran International, and New York’s John F. Kennedy International. 

In 2015, five more airports are expected to achieve the distinction, including Washington D.C.'s Dulles and Sky Harbor International in Phoenix. 

Part of the problem is that air passenger traffic projects to grow about two percent a year, according to the FAA, and will total 738 million domestic passengers by 2018. That's up from 653 million in 2012.

At the same time, airline industry consolidation has meant fewer flights, on bigger planes, carrying more passengers to fewer airport hubs for connecting flights, says Andrew Tipping, a consultant for both airlines and airports at Strategy&. 

The result has led to huge peaks in traffic, as much 10-fold at one client's airport terminal, says Tipping, who would not disclose the client. "It's a complex problem," Tipping says, "This is not a question of if there should be change. It's a question of when there should be change."

Tipping says airports could develop a system, for example, of charging airlines more to land during peak periods. Eventually, he says, the current airport structure in the U.S. will also have to expand to meet demand.

"We can push for a while to keep on using what we've got. But at some point you can't keep on improving and there is expansion needed," Tipping says.

So, who should pay for that expansion?

The U.S. Travel Association is proposing a hike in the fee airports charge passengers on their tickets. The fee is currently capped by law at $4.50, but the association wants airports to have the freedom to raise that amount by as much as an additional $4to fund expansion projects.

"The largest U.S. airports are the most financially strapped, and these are the airports that most people use," says Erik Hansen, senior director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association. 

Hansen says the country's top 30 airports are going to get even more congested within the next six years and expansion will be important to meeting future needs.

"We're investing more in airports all the time," counters Jean Medina, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, who says passengers shouldn't be shouldering airport improvement costs.

"Airports have ... access to government funds, they have access to a trust fund, they have access to concessions which all pay in ... They have numerous access to funding," Medina says.

Medina also points out that there are fewer flights today than there were prior to the recession, although the FAA predicts that domestic air passenger traffic should surpass 2007 levels by 2016.

"What's actually happening is passengers are connecting through a smaller number of airports," says Tipping. "And when you put that into major travel times like Thanksgiving and others, it does cause massive problems."

Quiz: Teen tobacco trends

Wed, 2014-12-03 04:25

Cigarette smoking among American middle and high school students is on the decline, but use of other tobacco products follows a different trend, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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PODCAST: To your right, a lawsuit

Wed, 2014-12-03 03:00

Given new data today, let's give the job market a B-Plus. Today a private sector count of American payrolls showed some strength, even if it wasn't spectacular. More on that. Plus, the publishing company Billboard will be releasing a new top 200 record album chart tomorrow. And for the first time, the rankings include data from downloads and music streamed digitally. And last up, the first amendment says the government can't limit free speech. Except when it can. For instance, you can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater if there's no fire. And what about tour guides who want to speak aloud about local attractions? The guides at some vacation spots are suing their cities for making them get a license. As we find out, claiming the licensing infringes on their First Amendment rights.

The Billboard 200 will now account for streamed music

Wed, 2014-12-03 02:00

When Billboard releases its list of the week’s top-selling 200 albums Thursday, for the first time the rankings will factor in how often songs have been streamed and downloaded. 

That will be welcome news for Richard Laing, head of sales for the record label Sub Pop. He says many of the label's artists, including bands like The Album Leaf, may sell few albums, but do well online. The Album Leaf, for instance, has millions of plays on streaming services like Spotify.

Laing says Billboard's new formula could bring more recognition to bands like The Album Leaf. Billboard is creating a new industry standard that “reflects people's behavior a little more closely,” he says,  and better captures “how people are consuming music.” 

More people than ever are streaming music. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), steaming audio brought in 27 percent of music industry revenue during the first half of the year. During that same period, physical album sales declined 14 percent and downloads dropped 12 percent. 

Paul Resnikoff runs the blog Digital Music News. He says Billboard's new metrics probably won’t change album rankings too much. Major artists get traction across almost every platform, he says, so if you were a superstar before streaming was counted, you’ll be a superstar after it’s counted, too. 

In fact, says Resnikoff,  top albums may stay at the top a little longer because of the changes. Right now, he says, records typically get a big bump directly after the album release date. With streaming in the mix, they could get another bump if people keep listening online. 


Does the First Amendment apply to tour guides?

Wed, 2014-12-03 02:00

On mild days along the Georgia Coast, you’ll find “Savannah Dan” leading tours of the city’s downtown historic district. Dan Leger is easy to spot in his traditional Southern garb of a straw hat, bow tie, and seersucker suit.

Leger is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by tour guides in several popular vacation spots. Savannah, Georgia and some other cities require tour guides to obtain a special license to give tours. The plaintiffs say that violates their First-Amendment free speech rights.

Savannah’s requirements — take a test, get a health exam, and pass a criminal background check — are time-consuming and unnecessary, says Leger.

“What my physical fitness has to do with walking around and telling stories, I have no idea,” he says.

Officials with City of Savannah say these requirements protect tourists’ safety, and ensure that guides have at least a minimum knowledge of the city’s history and architecture.

But the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, is challenging the law and similar ones in New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Senior attorney Robert McNamara says the cases test whether or not Americans have the basic right to speak for a living. McNamara says the market, rather than the government, should decide if a tour company stays in business.

“We pay people to give lectures; we pay people to tutor us in math; we pay people to talk on the radio,” he says. “And no serious person believes that those people are somehow outside the first amendment.”

In Washington, D.C, officials say the issue is not free speech, but consumer protection. Matt Orlins is a Legislative and Public Affairs Officer with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

“The licensure requirement is not there to judge whether someone provides a good tour or a bad tour,” Orlins says. “They’re there to ensure that you’re complying with the law.”

The District of Columbia has dropped its requirement that tour guides take content tests to prove their knowledge of the city. But guides still must have a license — at least for now.  The Institute for Justice is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on whether licenses for tour guides are constitutional.



Supreme Court hears pregnancy case

Wed, 2014-12-03 02:00

The Supreme Court is hearing a pregnancy discrimination case Wednesday that involves a woman who sued the United Parcel Service. 

Lower courts have basically dismissed the lawsuit, brought by former UPS worker Peggy Young. Still, businesses are paying attention to this case.

“I’m not getting anybody that’s freaking out right now,” says Steve Hirschfeld, an employment lawyer and partner at Hirschfeld Kraemer in San Francisco. But he says clients are wondering what’ll happen if Young wins. “Are we going to need to hire somebody on a temporary basis, or temporarily move this person to another job? For very small companies, that can be very, very difficult to do.”

He says the biggest cost for employers if Peggy Young wins would be an avalanche of pregnancy discrimination lawsuits. Other employment lawyers say, not necessarily. 

Katherine Kimpel represents workers in discrimination cases as D.C. managing partner at Sanford Heisler. She filed a friend of the court brief in support of Young. She says pregnant workers feel vulnerable, and aren't likely to file lawsuits, even if Young wins.

Kimpel also says many pregnant workers request accommodations that cost almost nothing.

“Things like being able to keep a water bottle with them," she says. "Or having—if they work at a cash register—having a stool.”

And Kimpel says, accommodating pregnant workers makes good business sense, because it helps companies retain their workers. 

Breaking YouTube, Gangnam Style

Wed, 2014-12-03 01:30
27 percent

That's the percentage of music industry revenue brought in during the first half of the year by streaming music alone. It's become significant enough that on Thursday, the Billboard 200 will start accounting for streaming data in its calculation of top selling albums.


The number of Sony Pictures employees whose names, birthdays and social security numbers were revealed in the recent hack at Sony Pictures. Payroll, layoffs and other sensitive information were dumped online, Fusion reported, most of it in simple, unencrypted spreadsheets. The documents show an apparent pay gap; Columbia Pictures' male co-president is slated to earn 1.5 times more than his female counterpart. 

$15,000 to $100,000

That's the range of bonuses being given out by a top New York law firm, as reported by the New York Times. Some say the increase in bonuses signals a return of corporate America, as more money is being spent on mergers and acquisitions.

November 25

The day two New York Times reporters covering unrest in Ferguson abruptly stopped tweeting. It was the same day conservative journalist Charles C. Johnson published their addresses on his website, Bloomberg reported. The move was retaliation for a Times story that mentioned the general location of Officer Darren Wilson's home, which had been unoccupied for weeks. The ensuing harassment was predicated on the assumption that the paper had published Wilson's actual address.

2.1 billion views

Entertainment sensation PSY has done the unthinkable: he broke YouTube. Well, sort of. The site announced that it never anticipated a single video receiving so many views, and had to install an update that would properly display the needed amount of commas. PSY's 'Gangnam Style' currently has 2.1 billion views.

18 years

The lifespan of Microsoft clip art, the illustrations that jazzed up countless fliers, book reports and holiday cards during the 90s and early 2000s. Microsoft has finally killed them off in favor of Bing image search this week. The Verge has a look back at the best clip art from the art form's heyday.

The Sony cyber-attack: Whodunit?

Tue, 2014-12-02 14:23

Why would North Korea be mad at Sony?

Well, maybe because of Sony Pictures Entertainment's new movie:

Some speculate the North Korean government was mad enough to carry out the recent cyber-attack on the Sony Pictures Entertainment network. 

But Kim Zetter, a senior staff reporter at Wired, says she's not buying it. 

"Nation State hacks aren't generally noisy like this, and they don't generally start with a picture of a skull on computers," Zetter says. Instead of a covert national effort on North Korea's part, Zetter thinks the attack on Sony probably came from hacker group Guardians of Peace.

The FBI stresses that businesses should take caution due to the recent hacking incidents. But according to Zetter, plenty of individuals within the company also might find themselves victims of malicious software attacks. While Sony has yet to confirm what the hackers acquired, Zetter says it could be Social Security numbers of Sony employees, passport information from celebrities and employee salary information.

What can companies do to safeguard against hackers?

"Everyone is going to get hacked," Zetter says. "The question is: What is your game plan for dealing with a hack once you discover it?"

York & Fig: Marc Maron on Highland Park

Tue, 2014-12-02 12:40

Comedian Mark Maron lives in Highland Park, California, the subject of our York & Fig gentrification project. He produces his popular podcast, "WTF with Marc Maron," out of his garage. He also shoots his autobiographical cable television show, "Maron," in Highland Park.

Read the rest of this interview at York & Fig.

York & Fig: The House on York

Tue, 2014-12-02 12:18

Our Wealth and Poverty team has been working on a project about what happens when the economy that we live in changes. We opened a pop-up news bureau in a neighborhood 8 or 10 miles from downtown LA, called Highland Park, that's basically gentrifying. 

People have moved into the area, and their money has too, which means other people have moved out ... and not always because they wanted to. Housing costs have gone up, a lot.

But if you've lived in the neighborhood a while, it's an opportunity to sell high, because the newcomers can and will pay top dollar. Marketplace's Noel King looks at one house on York Boulevard and three generations of its owners.