The math is clear: College pays off.
Among Americans ages 25 to 32, college graduates earned $17,500 more than high school graduates in 2012 — the largest pay differential ever, according to Pew Research. When it comes to earnings, "the picture is consistently bleaker for less-educated workers," the Pew study concluded.
But even as the value of a college diploma has been rising, the cost of tuition has been increasing even faster — far beyond the reach of most young people. The cost of four years of tuition, room, board, books and fees can stretch up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the pace of increase has accelerated throughout the recession and slow recovery.
The College Board says the average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased by 27 percent beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from the 2008-09 academic year to 2013-14. After adjusting for inflation, the cost of tuition more than tripled between 1973 and 2013.
That reality has been forcing more and more students to take on staggering debts. Among all students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2012, seven in 10 left with debt.
And that debt load is heavy — an average of nearly $30,000 each, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Just 20 years ago, fewer than half of college students graduated with debt, and the amount was less than $10,000 on average.
Such statistics can be especially daunting for lower-income families.
"Unfortunately, there are still a lot of young people all across the country who say the cost of college is holding them back," President Obama said earlier this month at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami.
He was there to tout an initiative to help students complete their applications for federal student aid, such as Pell grants and loans. Obama also wanted to call attention to his request to have Congress spend $100 million to support strategies for making college more affordable.
David Scherker, one of the students at Coral Reef High, said his parents have been scrimping for years to make sure he can get to college. "We don't splurge a lot," he said. And he is hoping to get as much aid as possible.
But not all his classmates have had such parental support and are less confident about being able to afford college. "Some of them are so stressed out about it that they don't want to talk about it," he said. Instead of their senior year being full of high hopes, "it's just a stressful time for everyone," he said.
Does college really need to be so expensive? What can families do in the face of such staggering costs?
NPR is launching a series of stories and conversations about college affordability. On two shows, Morning Edition and Tell Me More, hosts and guests will consider how college became so expensive, and how average people can pay for higher education.
NPR reporters will meet with families facing an onslaught of sophisticated direct marketing and data mining by schools, wading through the financial-aid process, trying to decipher often-misleading letters about scholarships and finally deciding whether a student's dream school is affordable.
These are some of the topics to be explored in coming weeks:
- Colleges say applicants must show "demonstrated need" to get financial aid. But some analysts say the formula for determining what a family can afford for college is arcane and unrealistic, leaving many with little help.
- In the years after World War II, the goal of going to college was within reach for many lower and middle-class students. But in recent years, cost increases have been far exceeding the pace of inflation. What policy shifts led to the affordability crisis?
- Black and Hispanic students are dramatically underrepresented in college programs focused on physics or astronomy. City University of New York is trying to change that with special help for minorities.
- Private high-school students are roughly nine times more likely to go to elite universities, such as Yale or Princeton, than public school students. What are the implications for income inequality as those students move into the workforce?
Connecticut-born composer-pianist Timo Andres likens his music to "walking into an interesting apartment and seeing a few things next to each other that tell you something about a person." At once familiar and modern, forward-looking and reverent, Andres's music tells the story of a composer striving to reconcile a fascination with the past and composers ranging from Mozart to Chopin to Brian Eno, with a stylish, pointillist craftsmanship all his own.
Andres discusses his "found sound" approach to composition, which begins as a dialogue with other music and develops from a tendency to "dissect the structure, remove the skeleton and fill in my own notes to the skeleton." Evocative chords — such as one from the second movement of Sibelius's Violin Concerto — can serve as a jumping-off point, something Andres is quick to illustrate at the piano.
His albums Shy and Mighty (2010) and Home Stretch (2013) demonstrate his exciting, idiosyncratic style of music-making and were met with critical acclaim.
For this opening episode of Season 2 of Q2 Spaces, Andres takes us on a tour of his sharply decorated apartment in Bed-Sty, Brooklyn, and shares stories of mushroom-hunting with his former teacher, Ingram Marshall, his ambivalence to the idea of musical heroes and how he could trace his whole persona back to Edward Gorey illustrations.
This is a recording of a jazz trio playing the score to a 101-year-old ballet. It is not a "jazzing the classics" record or a "fantasia on the themes of" sort of project. It is a band translating one of the landmark works in music history to piano, bass and drum set, and doing it as literally as possible.
This makes more sense than meets the eye. For one, the ballet is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, an immensely complex and cacophonous work which, paired with appropriately violent choreography, caused a confused audience to riot during its 1913 premiere. That tremendous potency came to be recognized over time as mastery, in part by modern jazz musicians with big ears. It's a rhythmically pulsing, frequently irregular work based on folk music — akin to the way improvisers swing, syncopate and draw from African-American folklore.
Of all the jazz groups to tackle such a hurdle, The Bad Plus seems like the right horse for the course. It's a group with an affinity for quirky, proggy original music; a reputation for transformative covers of anything from 20th-century classical music to Aphex Twin; an evident love for music history, whether jazz or otherwise. It's also been touring frequently for well over a decade, with sizeable fan base and media attention, making it possible for a few major performing arts institutions to commission it for something of this scope. So they did, at first performing their adaptation of the Rite with a video installation and later with a dance company. Now the music is on record for anyone to hear.
For such a loud orchestral undertaking, the Rite reduces surprisingly well to three dudes. Whether the herky-jerky action of the "Sacrificial Dance" or "Glorification of the Chosen One," or perhaps the unsettled majesty of "The Augurs of Spring" or the "Spring Rounds," a proper sound system gives you the gloriously noisy gist of it.
But this Rite isn't totally without its artistic liberties. Ethan Iverson (piano) and Reid Anderson (bass) supply the melodic and harmonic information, leaving Dave King (drums) to play a bit of free safety. King's beatmaking (and in the opening section, Anderson's electronic programming) often acts in a capacity Stravinsky never scripted, buoying with a backbeat or a bit of snare commentary or even ride-cymbal swing. His contribution certainly remains loyal to the mood of Stravinsky's fever dream; at the same time, it's also the key to why this still sounds like Bad Plus music, too.
If you think you know what Middle Eastern music sounds like, think again — because Beirut-born electro-pop singer Yasmine Hamdan is positioning herself in an incredibly interesting place. She's singing at the intersection of sexy electronica and iconic Arab tradition, fed in equal parts by PJ Harvey and the legendary Syrian-Egyptian vocalist Asmahan.
Hamdan is the groundbreaking co-founder of the duo Soapkills, which was billed as the first indie electropop band in Lebanon, and certainly one of the first in the Middle East. Then, performing as Y.A.S., she collaborated with Mirwais Ahmadza´ (of Madonna's Music fame). Now performing under her own name, Hamdan has perfected a very particular kind of disaffected cool, like a less effortful Lana Del Rey, as you can see from the video we made with Hamdan at this year's edition of globalFEST in New York. It's no wonder that Jim Jarmusch cast this super-charismatic singer in his film Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, which is set to open in the U.S. next month.
On Ya Nass (Oh People), her first solo album released under her own name (available March 27), Hamdan uses sonic textures that will be very familiar to any lover of synths and guitars, with a vocal style to match — even if the language is not. Produced by Marc Collin, a French musician and producer probably best known as a founder of Nouvelle Vague, Ya Nass is universes away from "world music." Despite mixing original material and reworkings of old Arab songs, the closest Hamdan comes to exotica is in the fleeting, North African-tinged close to "Hal," a song she wrote for Jarmusch's film, which features polyrhythmic qaraqib brass castanets.
Much of the material on Ya Nass is original, with a few surprises woven in. Hamdan often proclaims her love for iconic Arab singers of the 1920s through the '60s, and her track "La Mouch" is a smart, dark reworking of "Laa Mech Ana Elli Abki," a classic tango by the Egyptian legend Mohammed Abdel Wahab. He's an artist Hamdan has called "the love of her life."
Will it be detrimental to Hamdan's international career that this album is strictly bil arabiyya? That remains to be seen, but for Hamdan, it's an obviously deliberate choice to sing only in Arabic, rather than a more globally accessible English or even French. It's maybe even more of a statement for a singer from the comfortably polyglot Beirut, where English and French are just as common as Arabic. But Hamdan, whose childhood was splintered between Lebanon, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Greece and who is now based in Paris, has chosen to use Arabic (which she sings in a variety of dialects) as a way of defining herself. And through her singular pairing of sound and language, she's opening up what it means to be an Arab artist today.
A couple weeks ago a writer friend texted me a screengrab of an Instagram of a stocky guy in a tight black T-shirt tucked into pleated black slacks. The pants were held at his actual waist by a black leather belt with a gold buckle. After the photo the friend texted simply "NORMCORE?" The man in black was Samuel Herring, lead singer of Future Islands, and he was already meme-ing his way into the hearts of thousands on Tumblr because of a certain dance move.
This was, quite possibly, the best and worst introduction to Future Islands. Worst because, well, NORMCORE. Best because the band's performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, from whence the original Instagram came, was anything but normal. They played Singles' lead single "Seasons (Waiting on You)." Herring howled and grumbled his way through it, dipping down low to do said dance move, then standing tall to audibly pound his chest and search for meaning. It was mesmerizing, like watching a young Marlon Brando yell "Stellaaaaaa" into the Barrymore's cheap seats. The rest of the band just stood there like stagehands doing their jobs.
Great performances like that raise expectations, especially if they're introductions, especially if they're to promote a new album on national television. So that is the weight on Singles, and yet, miraculously, it doesn't crumble. Singles is extremely catchy, well-constructed classic pop: winsome and simple melodies, yearning lyrics, bass lines that will never die. It is also dark and desperate and serious in a way that feels fairly rare these days. There is no ironic withdrawal, no equivocation to avoid abuse, just pure commitment. Herring's voice, which can go from searching whisper to hoarse demonic shout on a pivot, does much of this heavy lifting. He sings like a Teamster with an adorable family of twelve. Must be a Baltimore thing.
With Singles, Herring and his bandmates, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion, have hit upon something that seemed in development on their previous records. Captivating and confident songwriting coalesce with a troubling vision of fields once green and now fallow, falls from grace, and fading away. Honest and earnest when few asked for it; willing to bare their souls, no matter how abnormal they might be, in front of millions; searching for answers where there are probably none; and yet still ideal for an oblivious two-step. Future Islands are probably deserving of something more in this existence than a four-second gif-loop with no sound, but these are dark times. At least they're dancing on the edge of the abyss.