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LO-FI LEGENDS

For ones-of-a-kind, R. Stevie Moore and Gary Wilson have a lot in common. Approximately the same age (very early 60s), Moore and Wilson share overlapping cult followings based on home-studio productions that juxtapose sincere if brilliantly misguided pop aspirations with avant-garde strategies. No style is off-limits to Moore, who recorded most of his 400-plus albums — most recently In the History of Ever and the compilation Personal Appeal — over three decades in nearby New Jersey. Wilson, best known for his eccentric 1977 electropop masterpiece You Think You Really Know Me, is a John Cage–influenced lounge singer from the Binghamton area who incorporates inflatable women into his show. To have these icons of the WFMU anti-aesthetic on the same bill is glorious.

Fri., Jan. 24, 8 p.m., 2014

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More Bucks, Same Bang

At this time last year, Lily Jones and Sonika Mehta were both weighing their college options: private or public? East Coast or West? Big city or small?

Today, as first-year students at New York University, they’re each happy with their decision to seek their undergraduate degrees at one of the nation’s top schools. Just listen:

“I definitely do feel very bad,” says Jones. “I still feel kind of guilty.”

“I feel guilty all the time,” Mehta chimes in.

“Not bad,” clarifies Jones. “I just feel guilty.”

The two are discussing a topic on the minds of hundreds of thousands of high school seniors this fall as they consider college applications: tuition costs, which are rising at about double the rate of inflation, with no sign of slowing. Neither Jones nor Mehta receives grants or scholarship money, so they—or in this case, their parents, hence the guilt—are on the hook for the entire cost of an NYU education, which after housing costs can clear $60,000 a year.

Mehta, who considered some cheaper state universities before settling on NYU, says she ultimately decided the price would be worth it for the easy access to New York City and its cultural riches. “But I do realize how much money it is. It’s a ridiculous amount of money.”

Students who take on staggering debt loads or drain their parents’ savings to go to high-priced schools generally assume a payoff once they’re out in the working world. “Anyone can go to a state school,” explains Evan Lee, a sophomore economics major at NYU, of his decision to pay several thousand dollars more a year (after scholarships) instead of settling for State University of New York–Binghamton. “A lot of the job applications that I’ve looked at, they say ‘requires a high GPA from a top school.’ A school like Binghamton, they’re good, but if I go to Chicago, they might say, ‘What’s a Binghamton?'”

It’s common reasoning: A selective-college diploma may come at a high price, but it will open doors that might have been closed to you if you’d attended a cheaper public school. Except for one thing, say the authors of the most exhaustive study to track the post-graduation earnings of students by school selectivity: It’s hogwash.

“Where you go to school doesn’t matter near so much as who you are—how smart you are, how ambitious you are—in terms of how it affects your later income,” says Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research, who, with Princeton economist (and former top Obama adviser) Alan Krueger, has conducted two major studies of selective colleges and their effects on future income. “Everyone looks around and says, ‘Wow, these people who went to Harvard make a lot of money.’ And it’s certainly true. But what people can’t really see is what they would have made had they not gone to Harvard.”

To account for this effect—that students at top schools are bound to be top students, and so more likely to be successful regardless of where they choose to get their diploma—Dale and Krueger concocted a clever workaround: They compared post-graduation income among cohorts who were accepted at the same schools—say, both the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University. Their finding: There was no statistically significant correlation between choosing a more selective (and expensive) undergraduate program and future earnings.

“Our findings are very surprising to a lot of people,” says Dale. “I think everyone’s gut feeling is it’s got to pay off—why would people ever pay for Yale or Harvard if it doesn’t pay off?”

Sticker Shock

It’s hardly news that the cost of a college degree is soaring. Higher-ed experts cite elite institutions conducting bidding wars for top faculty and state cuts to spending on public universities as two prime reasons, but have few suggestions for how to stem the tide; in August, President Obama proposed cutting federal financial aid dollars for schools that overcharge for tuition, but this would require Congressional action, and in any case wouldn’t kick in until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, college cost experts caution that prospective students weighing their college options should look not at sticker price—the

“tuition plus fees” number that is commonly highlighted—but at net cost, your expected total outlay after getting back any available grants and scholarships. It’s a calculation made easier by the net cost calculators that any schools wishing to receive federal student loan money have had to include on their websites since 2011; these allow applicants to plug in their family financial data and get back an estimate of what they’ll actually be on the hook for after available grants and scholarships.

In some cases, it’s a huge difference. Columbia’s cost calculator shows that a typical new student from a family with $100,000 in annual income could end up paying only about $15,000 of the school’s $64,000 in annual tuition, fees, and housing; the average cost per student is about $20,000, according to the school’s own figures. At NYU, the numbers are less dramatic but still significant: A school spokesperson says that its average student pays just 77 percent of the roughly $60,000 in annual costs, with those that receive financial aid paying an average of about $34,000.

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Still, that’s a sizeable nut, especially compared to the roughly $10,000 per year that a City University of New York degree costs (double that if you require housing) before financial aid is factored in, even after the public school’s recent tuition hikes that spurred mass protests. Other schools in the five boroughs don’t come out much better in the comparison: A student at Fordham University whose family earns the New York City median income (about $57,000), for example, would still be on the hook for $46,000 of the school’s annual $57,000 in tuition and other costs.

Columbia dean of undergraduate admissions Jessica Marinaccio cites the university’s strong faculty, small class size, and exceptional resources as reasons to attend. NYU dean of admissions Shawn Abbott, while acknowledging that “NYU is an expensive university to attend,” says it’s worth it both for access to top professors, and for the contacts students can make there.

“The reality is that our students intern and work regularly with little fanfare at places I only dreamed about as a college student in rural New Hampshire,” writes Abbott via e-mail. “My classmates and fraternity brothers didn’t intern at MTV, or Vogue, or with the New York Yankees. We didn’t write for the Village Voice, and we didn’t spend early morning hours before class at the New York Stock Exchange.” As a result, he says, more than 92 percent of last year’s NYU graduating class were employed within six months of graduation, with an average annual salary of around $52,000.

Yet Dale responds that, according to PayScale.com‘s college salary data (which is drawn from employee surveys), the average starting salary of a SUNY–Binghamton graduate is nearly as much, at $47,200—and that’s not accounting for the fact that NYU students are likely drawn from a higher-talent, higher-income pool to start with. “I think it is hard to come up with concrete examples of things that elite colleges teach (and that less elite colleges do not teach as well) that would translate to higher earnings,” she writes via e-mail.

Exceptions to the Rule

For all the cold water that Dale and Krueger have thrown on the value of a high-priced college education, their studies have shown one group for whom a degree from a more selective school does lead to greater rewards. “For racial and ethnic minorities (black and Hispanic students) and for students whose parents have relatively little education,” they wrote in a 2011 update of their original 1999 study, “our estimates [of the income benefits of a selective-college degree] remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics.” Why would all diplomas be equal for most students, but not for these? Dale’s theory: “For the upper-middle-class kid who could have gone to Harvard, even if he didn’t go, he’s well-connected, his parents probably have decent jobs and can help him find a job after college.” Students of color or those without college graduates in their family tree are less likely to already have those connections, “so going to a selective college really gives those kids a boost in terms of their networking.”

The trouble is, those aren’t the students who are, by and large, going to the Harvards of the world. In July, Jeff Strohl and Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released “Separate and Unequal,” a report that investigated how American higher education is becoming increasingly stratified by race and class. More than four-fifths of incoming white students go to top-ranked schools, explains Strohl, while nearly three-quarters of black and Hispanic students begin at open-access two- and four-year colleges. This disparity occurs in graduation rates as well, he says, even if you account for the fact that more selective schools attract better students. Students of color who scored in the top half of college entrants graduate about 40 percent of the time at open-access schools, but 73 percent at the more selective schools.

“Our data shows that if you take minority students who score well and put them in a good school, they’re going to do better,” says Strohl.

Strohl agrees with Dale that more affluent students don’t get much additional benefit from the added resources at pricier schools, but poorer and minority students do. He calls it the difference between “having the middle- or upper-class cocoon or not,” pointing to himself as an example: “My parents were professors, I grew up on a college campus. There’s a whole set of supporting mechanisms that pick you up when you fall down.”

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There are two obvious solutions, though neither is easy to implement: either get more students with poor resources into top schools, despite the high cost; or somehow reallocate the riches that selective colleges have at their disposal to the cheaper schools where low-income students already congregate.

“If we moved $1,000 of educational resources from Harvard to Howard, what would happen to the graduation rate at Howard?” asks Strohl. “We don’t know the answer because we’ve never had that experiment.”

New Scorecards in the Works

There is some hope on the horizon for students wishing to know what bang they’ll get for their tuition buck. Earlier this year, notes David Bergeron, a former Obama education official now at the think tank Center for American Progress, White House Domestic Policy Council deputy director James Kvaal promised that the Education Department would start publishing earnings data on each school’s graduates, filling in a space on its College Scorecard that has long been left blank.

The new numbers would be generated by an ingenious end run around limits on tracking earnings: Instead of relying on alumni surveys, the government intends to cross-reference financial aid payment information with Social Security earnings data to generate average income figures for each school—albeit just for those students who receive financial aid. Bergeron, who was at the Education Department when it first began developing the college scorecards, says he expected the figures to be available this month—though “clearly it won’t happen now,” after the department lost two weeks to the government shutdown. “The department fully understands this time we’re in right now is when high school seniors are deciding where to apply.”

In the meantime, students weighing their college options are left to calculate schools’ relative costs and benefits on their own. For Anthony Sganga, a New Jersey native who transferred from Bergen Community College to NYU, his initial determination was that it wasn’t worth it: “I would not take out $60,000 in loans.” But after discovering a scholarship program for community college students that could reduce his debt load to $12,000 a year, slightly more than it would have cost him to transfer to Rutgers, he changed his mind. “In my case, it’s a no-brainer, because 12 grand is a large chunk, but there aren’t that many schools today where you’re going to get that little to pay for college.”

Is this kind of financial calculus typical of many of his peers? “Not enough. I don’t know if two years ago, when I first came out of high school, I would have done the same amount of research,” says Sganga. “When students are 18, you just say, ‘That’s my dream college, I want to go there.’ I don’t think enough students do that—and then four years later they get the bill and think, ‘How did this happen?'”

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FREE RADICAL

In 1971, maverick Hollywood filmmaker Nicholas Ray, best known as the director of Rebel Without a Cause, took a teaching job at Harpur College in Binghamton and began what would become his final groundbreaking work with the help of his students. We Can’t Go Home Again employs split screens to explore multiple ideas at once and stars his eager acolytes working and smoking pot with their super-cool professor. Not shown in more than 30 years, the film was completely edited and restored by Ray’s wife, Susan, and can be seen at Film Forum tonight with an introduction by Susan Ray. The film is a double feature with Don’t Expect Too Much, a film about the making of We Can’t Go Home Again, with commentary from original crew members and directors Jim Jarmusch and Victor Erice.

Mon., Oct. 17, 5:35, 7 & 8:50 p.m., 2011

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The 50th Anniversary Special: Essays

The 50th Anniversary Special: An Introduction
Hentoff: In Praise of Personal Journalism
I arrived at The Village Voice in 1958 in urgent need of a wide-ranging forum because for years I had been typed by editors as only knowing about jazz.
Murphy: Buying and Selling the ‘Voice’
Crusading and independent journalistic beacon that it is, The Village Voice seems like the kind of intransigent social rebel that simply, absolutely can’t be bought.
Solomon: The ‘Voice’ and Queer Revolution
The Voice wasn’t born gay. But its queerness was certainly overdetermined.
Feingold Grows Up With Downtown Theater
The theater—the Downtown one, the only one that really means anything in New York’s cultural life—was born at roughly the same time as The Village Voice, and the two grew up together, two reckless runaway kids nurtured by the all-embracing foster mother, Manhattan.
Christgau: ‘Voice’ Invents Rock Criticism
I wanted to shout how crucial Voice music writing was from the git, but evidence was lacking.
Willis Decodes the Women’s Movement
In 1972, Karen Durbin showed some passages from her journal to a friend who was writing a book about the counter-culture and wanted to quote her on living in the age of radical feminism.
Tate: Black Journalism in the ‘Voice’
I began reading the Voice because of Stanley Crouch, who in 1977 was the epicenter of frontline jazz criticism in America at the most auspicious moment in the music’s progression since the early 1960s.
Hoberman’s Love Affair With ‘Voice’ Film Pages
Not exactly trekking to the one-room schoolhouse six miles across the tundra but a schlep nonetheless for the Teenage Me to find the one newsstand in Flushing (and later, Binghamton, New York) that carried The Village Voice.
Musto Rides the Wave of Club Culture

By the mid ’80s, the Big Apple had lost most of its shine, but I was still living large and loving it as a free-drink-ticket-holding, drag-queen-worshipping denizen of any nocturnal den available.
Barrett: ‘Voice’ Tradition of City Muckraking
There’s something symmetrical about the conviction of yet another boss of the Brooklyn Democratic party and the nearly simultaneous celebration of the Voice‘s 50th anniversary.
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Listings

Froofy boutique bars and fancy-pants Euro wineries are so last year. So is shelling out big bucks just to get drunk. Like many of her fellow New Yorkers, Spartos trades chocolate martinis and sugar daddies for Rheingold beers and recession woes. Who needs overpriced name-brand goods when stellar service can be had for less? Ever the educated consumer, Spartos trolls downtown in search of the ultimate neighborhood beer bargain.

With its pine paneling and all-American feel, BARROWS PUB (463 Hudson Street, 741-9349) could be some ironic hipster playground. Instead, it’s more like a musty VFW hall transplanted from Binghamton or Buffalo. And thank goodness for that, since the happy-hour prices (weekdays from 4 to 7, including $8.50 pitchers, $1.50 mugs, $2.75 Bud and Coors bottles, plus $1 off all drinks) are country, too. A few malty Rheingolds later, Spartos mistakes the Quick Draw terminals for pomo video projections, the potbellied construction workers for aloof V.I.P.’s, and the friendly bartender for a lockjawed bouncer. Who knew being a broke bastard could be so much fun?

Spartos continues her coupon clipping at the Lower East Side’s WHISKEY WARD (121 Essex Street, 477-2998), where the exposed brick walls, stamped-tin ceiling, and vast brew selection just scream midtown cigar bar. That is, in your hoity-toity dreams! The Ward’s got around-the-clock specials galore, including the $5.50 Parker (a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Wild Turkey or Jack Daniels) and the $6 glass-of-beer-and-call-shot combo. And if those trashy treats aren’t enough to kick Spartos’s ass, they top it with truly after-work happy-hour hours (Monday through Saturday from 5 to 8, half-price well and draughts). Come the new year, expect Spartos and assorted scenesters to drop their unemployment checks at this hotbed of fashionable thriftitude. Plus free peanuts to stave off starvation!

Speaking of starvation, Spartos recommends an icy $2 mug of Bud and a $5.50 house burger (with cheese, bacon, and all the fixings!) at the CORNER BISTRO (331 West 4th Street, 242-9502). Every meal at this old-timey Village institution is a variation on the aforementioned bread, beef, and cheese combination (grilled cheese, BLT, you get the picture). And what’s not to like about that? Sure, the line for a table is perpetually out the door, but all the descending vultures are proof of the bargain at hand. After all, when the bulimic waitresses of nearby MePa want a good barf, they come here. Your best bet is to snag a bar stool and place your order with the crazy bartender, who repeats it in song (“with ba-con!”) while expertly sliding frothies to the throngs. Like he says, “Thousands eat here annually. Why deny you?” Just pretend you’re the celebrity and he’s the doorman at the Park.

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Eminent Domain

Ram-Shackled

Customer satisfaction. Strategic alliances. Cost efficiency. Market forces. Such concepts are usually more synonymous with the mechanisms of corporate America than with the day-to-day functions of a college— that is, unless you’re referring to the State University of New York.

The ’90s has been a rough decade for the state’s 34-campus system. With funding slashed, tuition skyrocketing, and financial aid dwindling, administrators have scrambled to maintain both SUNY’s vision and integrity. Yet some believe such drastic austerity measures will help make the schools increasingly viable and competitive, eventually launching them into the echelons of the elite. Among the staunchest supporters of the makeover are members of SUNY’s conservative board of trustees— the institution’s governing body— who have promised to deliver a reformed public university that is “more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial, more focused and more creative.”

An integral part of the board’s streamlining agenda is its newly implemented Resource Allocation Methodology, or RAM. Viewed by critics as a divide-and-conquer strategy, RAM not only aggressively utilizes corporate sponsorship and board-approved performance reviews, but also penalizes schools that aren’t able to meet enrollment quotas by withholding some state funds. In addition, each campus must now rely solely on the money it collects in tuition to defray three-quarters of its expenses. According to Mary Ann Swain, provost of SUNY Binghamton and a member of the panel that helped create the method, “RAM takes the responsibility off the state.”

Prior to RAM, SUNY’s entire operating budget— which included tuition, state dollars, and financial aid— was pooled and then distributed in proportion to campus costs. Budget reductions were viewed as an attack on the whole system, with each school shouldering a fair share of the economic setbacks. Now, campuses must battle for the same state and corporate capital— and students— to make fiscal ends meet. “It’s Darwinism gone ape,” says William Scheuerman, president of the faculty union, United University Professions,”with students viewed as revenue generators.”

Critics fear such competition will foster the implementation of a differential tuition scale which would allow schools to charge as much as they want based on their own game plan for survival. Some SUNY schools have already begun to impose mandatory fees to make up for lost state dollars. At SUNY Buffalo, an obligatory $1040 has been tacked on to the $3300 tuition. Such moves, opponents assert, are eroding the cornerstone of SUNY’s mission— providing an affordable, accessible, and quality education.

The board-mandated alterations to SUNY’s financial landscape come after a decade-long $615 million reduction in state funding to the state university and CUNY. In 1986, state dollars accounted for more than 90 percent of SUNY’s budget; last year, that number hovered at 58 percent.

And it is students who have been forced to bear the brunt of such cuts. Since George Pataki has been in office, tuition has risen $750— the largest increase in the history of SUNY— and financial aid has been slashed by $294 million. According to a report issued last month by the Justice Policy Institute, current fees at SUNY represent 25 percent of the median income for white families, but more than 40 percent for African American and Latino families.

Just as worrisome to critics is the fact that the unilateral decision to push RAM— which steamrolled its way across campuses last summer with no public debate— can only be reversed by the legislature. Representatives from the state senate and the assembly have voiced support for a “RAM Buster” bill that would attempt to roll back some of the drastic changes and hope to introduce it in the spring.

“RAM allows the board to make decisions without taking the responsibility,” says Ed Sullivan, a state assemblyman and chair of higher education. “But if you’re going to try and kill a college, you’re going to stand up and take the heat.”

The most telling signs of the board’s blueprint for restructuring date back to 1995 when they released a report entitled “Rethinking SUNY.” Reading more like a prospectus than an educational plan, it recommended that “market forces, interpreted by the individual campuses, be a determining factor for tuition rates” and demanded that faculty become more productive. According to critics, these strategies stem from the popular ’80s economic theory of “Total Quality Management.”

“Year after year vital decisions on higher education are made based on nothing more than the short-term fiscal possibilities and political needs,” said State Comptroller H. Carl McCall last fall. And at SUNY Binghamton, often touted as the “Public Ivy,” recent developments in administrative policy illustrate the challenges facing schools in the age of for-profit education.

Magic Kingdom

With divisive policies such as RAM fracturing an already weakened SUNY network, corporate courtship is increasingly considered the weapon for survival. At SUNY Binghamton— whose substantial coffer benefited from RAM by upwards of $1.4 million this academic year— aggressive enrollment-bolstering tactics and strike-it-rich schemes are under way.

Currently, Binghamton enjoys the largest applicant pool in the SUNY system— more than 19,000 high school seniors compete for less than 2000 slots— and it is determined to maintain its cachet. Key to its radical new strategy for success is the Disney Institute, which school officials are banking on for some of Mickey’s money-making magic.

Touting its seminars as an “unmatched opportunity to learn how a renowned business leader achieves high performance results,” the Institute played host to at least six Binghamton administrators for three-and-a-half days during the summer of 1997 (university officials would not confirm the exact number of attendees). Having coughed up a fee of at least $18,000, school representatives sat through lectures at the Walt Disney World Resort on such topics as “The Magic of Service,” “The Magic of Process,” and “The Magic of Setting.”

Within months, Binghamton unveiled the brainchild of its Mouseketeer mentoring: the Quality Service Project. Relying on TQM-
inspired principles, the ultimate goal of the Project is to attract customers— or students— to the campus with expanded service and aesthetic improvements. Incorporating the particular language of Disneyspeak (see below), the project counts as one of its backbones a program titled “Creating the Show.” To help set the scene, new easy-to-follow signs have been erected, flower planters dot the grounds, and parking employees don uniforms.

“People apply to schools based on their head. Where they attend is based on their heart,” says Sylvia Hall, assistant director of Binghamton’s personnel department.

Furthermore, the Project has been spreading the Disney mantra— which emphasizes open communication with those in the trenches (customers and lower-level employees) to solve problems— through an in-house orientation program. Having instructed more than 300 faculty and staff members, “Quality Service Binghamton Style,” also provides training on “How To Anticipate and Exceed Customer Needs in an Academic Setting.” According to Hall, 90 percent of the campus staff who participated, faculty, and administrators have found the information from the Project “worthwhile and usable. . . . We have built a program based on Disney concepts.”

Although many students and faculty are not yet aware of the university’s involvement with the Disney Institute, it does have its critics. “Like it or not, the fact is that the public universities in the U.S.— and SUNY is a telling instance— are being rapidly transformed into agencies of transnational capitalist corporations,” says W.V. Spanos, an English professor at Binghamton. Last November, when board members visited Binghamton, students and employees leafletted the campus, carrying a banner inscribed “SUNY Killers Here.”

But if Pataki and the board have their way, Mickey is here to stay. This past fall, the governor’s office recognized Binghamton as one of six statewide Work Force Champions. As part of the award, Binghamton will be sharing information culled from the Disney Institute with other campuses. Already, SUNY Utica/Rome has taken heed, sending administrators down to the Institute this year.

“I see Binghamton at the forefront,” says Hall. “We’re the crown jewel of the system.”


Mind (Control) Reader

On how SUNY administrators can help build Brave New Worlds:

“The Disney theme show is quite a fragile thing. It just takes one contradiction, one out-of-place stimulus
to negate a particular moment’s experience.”

On the ins and outs of mind control:

Cast members should be trained in the “illusion
of spontaneity” to “establish common behaviors that contribute to the culture.”

On how to transform campuses into SUNYworlds:

“It was the motels and fast food outlets surrounding
Disneyland that motivated [Walt Disney] to
purchase enough land so that Guests would stay not only for a day, but for a week, or longer. He wanted the Guest immersed in the total show.”

On how to make lines seem shorter:

“Queue areas are broken up into many short lines
by an arrangement of railings that neatly divide
the Guests into small groups. These groups are kept moving through the maze.”

Taken from seminar guides received by SUNY administrators from the Disney Institute


One of six articles in our Education Supplement.