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Hold the Hand and Guide: Money 101 With SWIFT and Franklin Mint

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I have never considered myself to be a financial aficionado, but I was recently confronted with the depths of my ineptitude after a protracted tangle with the New York State Tax Department. In order to work a summer job scooping ice cream – seemingly the most carefree of professions – I had to become licensed to collect sales tax, but after the job ended and the months turned cold, I completely put it out of my mind that I was supposed to be “quarterly filing for zero.” A few notices were mailed to me, but I tended to glance at them only vaguely, feeling a cold sweat build at the back of my neck at the sight of unfamiliar tax-related words printed in an unforgiving font. I would decide I could deal with them later and turn my attention to pleasanter things. Soon the notices became more frequent and were sent through certified mail, which to me conveyed the message: escape is futile. Forcing myself to absorb the contents of the coldly angry envelopes, I learned that I was being asked to pay vast sums – a mixture of accrued interest on unpaid taxes and penalties – that were arguably more than I had made in my summer of (somewhat) diligent scooping. I finally resolved the issue after several lengthy telephone calls, but I came away from the experience with a clear understanding that taxes wait for no woman – the world of finances, however alarming it may be, cannot be ignored.

It was thus in a particularly receptive state that I read the announcement that the recently-founded Swarthmore Wealth Investment Finance Trade, or  SWIFT, Education Club was hosting a financial literacy workshop taught by the Franklin Mint Credit Union. The lecture was held in Sci 199 on February 28 and focused on banking and credit, with the comforting title “Money 101.”

Ayana Springfield, branch manager of Franklin Mint, welcomed attendees with snacks and goodie bags containing Franklin Mint paraphernalia and Dum Dum lollipops, which I tried not to take personally. Beth Manley, Franklin Mint’s adult financial education manager, began the talk by explaining the difference between credit unions, which are not-for-profit, and banks, which are for-profit, and therefore attempting to gently gouge you at every opportunity.

“It costs $250 for a bank to maintain one person’s checking account,” Beth said. “So if they are encouraging you to make an account you have to think, how are they going to recoup that?”

Answers to that question include check cashing fees, ATM fees, paper statement fees, plain old monthly fees, and dreaded overdraft fees, which are incurred when you attempt to withdraw more than your available balance, and swiftly increase if the situation is not immediately remedied.

“If you remain overdrafted for several days, you have the potential to go farther and farther negative,” Beth said. A collective gulp could be heard in the room.

Manley also discussed the importance of establishing good credit, which can be necessary for getting hired, renting an apartment, or receiving favorable rates for mortgages or insurance. This can have a harsh snowball effect – the worse your credit, the more things cost, and the more difficult it is to achieve financial stability. Manley stressed that it is easier to establish credit than it is to repair bad credit, which is why it is important to begin preparing early. Overall, the talk advocated awareness – though I came away with a greater host of things to be worrying about, I felt more equipped to deal with them, or at least I felt a stronger need to push through my ingrained head-in-the-sand tendency and take steps to equip myself.

When I spoke to Joshua Collins, the founder and co-president of SWIFT, it seemed that a similar feeling prompted him to begin the club. He described how when he was young his aunt, a banker in Haiti, would make fun of him for not understanding how to best use his money, and it prompted him to educate himself by reading about finance online.

“I got really interested in it and thought, “Let me bring this to the Swat community, because I can’t be the only one feeling this kind of way”, Collins said. “I thought if I can educate myself I can educate other people, then they can educate their family and friends, and build a network of communication and knowledge.”

More than learning about any individual topic, simply becoming aware of financial issues has been the most interesting part of the process to Collins.

“Once you see these things, suddenly you start thinking about them more,” he said. “Getting people more aware is where it starts. You don’t have to have the best financial knowledge in the world, don’t have to have the best background – once you have a little bit of knowledge you’re like, let me keep going with that, see where this leads me. That’s what happened to me.”

I admitted that learning about finances often seemed daunting to me and asked why he thought people felt that way.

“It’s money and numbers,” he said, matter-of-factly. “When you invest, the prospect of losing money is definitely a scary thing. But I think you need to realize that you’re losing money in different ways. If you buy a Starbucks coffee for five or six bucks when you could be making coffee at home, that’s money you could be saving. Maybe investing isn’t the worst idea in the world – you can make some money from that.”

I had never even remotely considered investing, understanding it as the realm of adults in suits, so I asked Collins his opinion. He said that many of his friends who have never invested have started buying Bitcoin.

“I guess they’re going in some direction,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t know if Bitcoin is the way to go but the earlier you start the better it is because of compound interest, and when you’re young you have a higher risk tolerance. You can afford to lose more money now than if you’re close to retirement, so getting people in that mindset is good.”

I described my tax dilemma to Collins, and my perhaps less-than-stunning realization that paying attention to finances is not optional.

“These things are just real,” he said. “No matter if you cover it up with sand, or throw a towel over it, it’s still going to be there. It’s just baby steps – you can’t expect people to jump into this stuff right away. You gotta just hold the hand and guide, that’s really where it starts.”

It might be a couple of years before I start dealing in cryptocurrency, but I felt like I had taken a few steps in the right direction.

New club promotes financial literacy

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The Swarthmore Wealth, Investment, Finance, Trade Education Club, SWIFT, arrived in fall 2017 as a newcomer to Swarthmore’s student organizations. The organization teaches students basic wealth management and investment skills. The organization recently gained attention around campus after releasing an email summarizing the finances of each meal plan.

The club began when Joshua Collin ’20 realized that many students lack a basic understanding of money and wanted to create a space in which the community could learn about it.

“It started the summer before this year when I said to myself, ‘I’m broke and I don’t know anything about money … how can I better understand money?’ After doing research I thought to myself, ‘I’m not the only one. I’m not the only college student who’s going through some money problems.’”

The club, headed by Collin, offers interactive workshops twice a month. The workshops aren’t run by the club leaders, but rather by guest speakers. A financial educator, Loan Vu, helped to get the club started and will run many of the workshops this spring. According to Collin, the workshops focus on life skills that students won’t learn in the classroom.

“People have been interested in talking to us about things like credit score and tenant laws,” said Collin. “Things people don’t really think about, like car insurance. It’s not just stocks and bonds, or how I can get my bread up.”

David Buckley ’21, another leader of the club, described how the workshops compare to classes.

“The workshops are very similar to a class in that you’re learning a lot,” said Buckley. “But the things that you’re learning in these workshops are going to be things … applicable to your life and immediately applicable to your future.”

To Kevin Zheng ’21, who took part in some of the meetings, the opportunity to learn everyday skills differentiates SWIFT from other investment-related clubs.

“I think what they’re doing makes a lot of sense,” Zheng said. “It’s almost a joke; when people finish college, they’ll say: ‘I know so much about how these cells interact, but I have no idea how to do my taxes.’”

Zheng described the information covered in SWIFT’s workshops as basic but necessary, and structured like a lecture class. In one of SWIFT’s first workshops on Dec.10th, Swarthmore director of investments Frank Gorsuch covered topics such as stocks and bonds. He also spoke about how to look at one’s personal needs in terms of risk assessment. According to Collin, the club plans to have workshops covering other useful skills such as using spreadsheets and Microsoft Excel.

The first few of meetings of the club attracted about 13 to 15 people according to Collin, but SWIFT plans to expand and add interactive elements. For example, it recently sent out a meal plan guide to help students to budget their meals.  They have already attracted attention from Tom Spock, Chairman of the Board of Directors, who may want to get involved, Collin said. He also envisions the club expanding beyond Swarthmore, possibly to Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges. He hopes that students will share the skills they learn with friends and family to influence a larger community.

“We have ideas to expand to other colleges in the area because this affects everybody,” said Collin. “You have to learn how to manage your wealth and how it’s going to work for you and your family in the future.”

Zheng agreed about the importance of learning wealth management skills.

“Saving for retirement might seem easier than being pre-med, but it’s equally important,” Zheng said.

Pub Nite survives for another semester

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For many past and present students, Thursday nights at Swarthmore College are known for Pub Nite.

“Historically, the officers would charge $4 at the door every week, but when the alcohol policies went under change [several years ago], we weren’t able to do this anymore. Since then, it’s been a fundraising effort,” said Shivani Chinnappan ’18, an officer of Pub Nite.

Although the process is difficult, Chinnappan explained the relative success the officers have had this fall semester. For instance, Chinnappan said it takes around $3000 to host Pub Nite for an entire semester, and this semester she and the other officers were able to successfully raise $2,423.

“We held the dry pub fundraiser at the beginning of the year [which] raised $560. Most of our other money came from people buying tables at $250 each” said Chinnappan.

“The average night costs around $135 – $140 for the kegs. Right now, we have enough in the fund to last until the second to last or third to last night [of the fall semester],” said Chinnappan.

However, Pub Nite officers’ success is hard to replicate on a consistent basis. This was exemplified in the spring of 2017, when there was a lack of available funds and there was concern about being able to keep the tradition running. The Pub Nite team of the spring semester of 2017 were only able to raise $1,716 through their gofundme page. They failed to hit their target of $3,000 by $1,284. Aidan Stoddard ’20, an avid Pub Nite goer, recalled that spring semester.

“We would get many emails and Facebook notifications asking us to donate to keep Pub Nite alive,” said Stoddard.

After many notifications from the Pub Nite officers, Stoddard felt overwhelmed, but he understood the need for these constant requests.

“I do really appreciate the officers’ efforts in making sure Pub Nite is running smoothly, but I did end up getting sick of requests for donations. But most importantly, as long as the officers can do their job to make sure Pub Nite takes place, I cannot ask for more and will be very content.”

Joey Bradley ’20 also expressed his discontent toward the large number of emails, but noted a change from last semester.

“I don’t think I’ve seen any of these emails and Facebook notifications [this fall 2017 semester],” said Bradley.

“If Pub Nite can have a couple big fundraising efforts rather than sending constant reminders to donate, I think a lot of students will be willing to donate more. What the officers did this year is impressive, and I want to thank them for their hard work. Thursday nights are what keeps me going throughout the first part of the week. It’s a little taste of what Saturday will be that week,” said Bradley.

For future fundraising, Chinnappan expressed her desire to repeat the same process as this fall semester since it was so successful.

“We’re definitely going to do another fundraiser like dry pub at the beginning of next semester.  We also floated the idea of selling tshirts…. I think in order for the funds to sustain from now on it will be on the officers to organize fundraising events like that rather than just wait for people to donate to the gofundme,” said Chinnappan.

Harry Leeser ’18, one of Pub Nite’s organizers,  believes that the future of the tradition is about maintaining its presence on campus.

“There will be really great weeks, and some kinda low key, not too crazy weeks at Pub, but, assuming people at Swarthmore keep going out on Thursdays and remain willing to support the institution of Pub Nite, it should be here to stay,” Leezer said.

The officers of Pub Nite are working to raise enough money for the semester to keep Pub Nite one of Swarthmore College’s favorite traditions. However, the work to preserving Pub Nite requires effort from both officers and students.

Financial aid decisions often more nuanced than they appear

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Many students have experienced a decrease in their financial aid packages after freshman year, despite little perceived change in their family’s financial situation. For some students, not receiving an adequate amount of aid meant not returning to Swarthmore this year.

Christian Rhodes, a would-be sophomore, was already toeing the line of being able to attend before his freshman year. After being told his aid would not increase unless there was a decrease in his parents’ income, he and his family made the choice for him not to attend this year.

“The financial aid office told me that I could appeal my financial package. However, they also said that if my parent’s income did not significantly change, then there probably wouldn’t be any change to the package,” said Rhodes. “My parents’ income didn’t change, so we didn’t try to appeal it. Instead, we focused on looking for a new school to transfer to.”

The college’s appeals process occurs only after a family reaches out to their respective financial aid director. From there, the aid director allows a family to fill out the request for reconsideration.

Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins explained that the reconsideration process allows the college to reassess a family’s financial situation after something drastic happens following the financial aid deadline. For example, if a family member loses a job, the appeals process allows the financial aid office to tweak a student’s aid package amount. Duffins said that events that occurred beyond the family’s control are crucial to the reconsideration process.

“While Swarthmore is an amazing school, I did not find my Swat degree to be worth the massive amount of debt I would be taking on after my four years,” Rhodes later remarked. “I loved Swat and everyone a part of it. It was just unfortunate the financial aid office couldn’t give a little more.”

For this year, the college’s financial aid budget was $39.6 million, and the average aid award was $47,000. While the budget of the financial aid office does depend heavily on the endowment, any increase to endowment spending or the office’s budget does not correlate with a student’s aid award. This rule is in place because the college already meets 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need according to the financial aid office. To calculate how much aid is allocated to each student that applies for financial aid, Swarthmore uses a software that runs the college’s need analysis based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and College Scholarship Service Profile for each family.

“What the need analysis is doing is making sure there’s fairness across the board. It’s also important to remember that income is not the only factor,” said Duffins.

The need analysis takes into account other factors, like the number of children a family has both in and out of college, where the family lives, and the amount of assets the family holds.

“The need analysis that we use is very responsive to families and thinks as families think, not always to the same degree, but takes into account all of the things that families think about,” Duffins later added. Though he acknowledged that some aspects of a family’s financial situation could escape the college’s need analysis, he cited the reconsideration appeals process as a remedy.

John, another would-be sophomore unable to attend due to financial difficulty whose real name is not used due to the sensitive nature of financial aid information, believes he should have gotten more aid. His freshman year aid package amounted to approximately $20,000, but he did not get a financial aid award sophomore year.  John’s parents own a small convenience store in the Midwest that sells gasoline. According to him, the nature of their work makes his parents look wealthier on paper than they actually are.

“On a good year, my parents probably make $70,000 a year and could not pay for Swat without taking a lot of debt on. On top of that, the financial aid office is not super knowledgeable about taxes,” he said. “The first year, they…gave me just enough to make me consider attending Swat.”

When John called the financial aid office, his financial aid director, Kristin Moore, told him she was going on vacation, and she would tell the office about his situation. After calling again, the office was unaware of John’s situation. His aid package information then came so late that there was little time to assess the situation. John was surprised that he was able to transfer colleges at all since he was past all of the deadlines for his current college. He was still accepted and received financial aid grants based on his FAFSA at the new school.

“Kristin seemed sympathetic, but either completely forgot or got out of there before she had to make any sort of decision and hoped that I would accept my fate and attend Swarthmore anyways,” he added. “The athletics department really wanted me to continue my attendance. They talked to me quite a bit after the decision came out and were very sorry they couldn’t help.”

Duffins stressed that a family’s financial circumstances are often deeply personal and complex. He explained that it is important to take into account the details that go not only into the financial aid office’s decisions, but also, a family’s decision of how to use their financial resources.

“It is uncommon for students to fully know the extent of their parents’ financial situations, and there is often much more to the circumstances than what can be shared among friends,” he said in regard to the widespread student perception that the financial aid office to an extent consistently decreases aid awards from one year to the next.

Rhodes said he intends to return to Swarthmore next year, provided he is able to complete his major in a truncated two years. As for John, he does not intend to transfer back. He said medical schools do not look well upon frequent transferring, and he wants to keep his chances of admission as high as possible.

 

Corporate environment contorts feminism

in Columns/Opinions by

We live in an idyllic haven of equality here at Swarthmore. On a daily basis, we are surrounded by extremely accepting and intelligent peers, who generally do not discriminate against one another on the basis of characteristics inherited by birth. More often than not, we are judged on our merits and our hard work, not on our physical appearance or surface-level traits. When we think of graduating and stepping out into the real world, we expect that the world outside will be just as tolerant and openminded; as a woman, I expect that I will be taken seriously. Perhaps this is just too presumptuous.

Earlier this week, I attended J.P. Morgan’s Winning Women program, a recruiting event geared towards undergraduate women interested in pursuing finance-related careers. The purpose of these events, in my view, is twofold. Such a program gives a company the opportunity to improve their image by showcasing the female leadership in their firm and the progressivism in their hiring and employment practices, given that women continue to be vastly underrepresented in the corporate world. In addition, these events allow the company to effectively groom the next generation of businesswomen by providing them with exposure to the industry and the foundation for a set of skills that can equip them for future success in finance.

The event began with some of the top executives giving us an overview of the work they do, followed by a series of panels, the second of which was titled, “Personal Branding.” The moderator, a campus recruiter, was female, as were all the panelists who were speaking and all of the undergraduate students attending the event. Three questions into the panel, the moderator approached the subject of emotions in the workplace, asking the female employees how they overcame balancing their feelings with their work. The next few questions and their subsequent responses seemed to imply that there was some truth to the notion that female employees are more emotionally unstable than their male counterparts, and as such a conscious effort needs to constantly be made to put aside feelings in order to perform their duties.

I hoped that despite the fact that this line of questioning had rubbed me the wrong way, the remaining responses could still redeem the corporate culture of these firms. That was the case until the moderator asked if the way in which these female employees dressed and spoke affected their personal brand in the workplace. The panelist to respond delved into an anecdote to illustrate her point, citing the example of an intern who had worked at the office during a previous summer. The intern had supposedly worn the same outfit to work two days in a row, which caused her supervisor—the panelist who was answering the question—to assume that she had gone out with her friends and stayed over at someone else’s place. The outfit-repeater seemed to slightly underperform at work on the second day, causing all other employees that she interacted with to lose respect for her and her work ethic. As I heard this high ranking employee of J.P. Morgan directly attack the character and diligence of a girl, I looked around to see if any of the girls around me were as concerned about the implications of this as I was. These girls, mostly accounting and finance majors from various local universities, were just shaking their heads in apparent agreement. These girls may go on to one day inhabit the very same seats that these panelists were currently in; the deeply rooted misogyny that these responses seemed to exude was becoming further perpetuated by brainwashing the next generation of corporate women to think that the stereotypes women face must be accepted rather than vehemently combatted.

It was disheartening to me to see that the women who are in the best possible position to uproot the prejudice faced by women were the very same women to appear most complacent. Instead of using their position of power to reject dated notions and gender roles, they were instead furthering the same misconceptions that have oppressed women for centuries. The idea that women are indisputably affected by feelings more so than men, and that these sentiments indubitably hinder their work, is not only demeaning and horribly offensive, but also just downright inaccurate. Condoning the practice of judging the capability and caliber of an individual due to their presumed actions outside of the workplace, actions which are neither morally nor legally reprehensible, further embeds the impression that a woman’s actions ought to be judged in the first place; quite frankly, it is no one’s business. Would anyone insinuate that when the boys go out for a round of drinks after a long day at work, they are proving themselves to be less worthy or competent as employees? Are men eternally emotionless and unfaltering workhorses? Would either of these issues have even been broached if this event wasn’t supposed to prepare women for the corporate environment?

These employees were provided with an invaluable platform to play a significant role in inspiring and shaping the lives of young women; instead of empowering my peers and I to break through the glass ceiling that is sexism in the corporate environment, these corporate leading ladies reinforced these twisted stereotypes and encouraged acquiescence. Conflict aversion through concession is not what we women must strive for; if we are being deprived of opportunities and fair treatment, we must look at oppression square in the face, acknowledge it as a problem, and then work to systematically dismantle it.

Administration holds finance and spending presentations

in Around Campus/News by

Since Feb. 1st, the administration has been holding meetings about the financial component of the college’s operations. On Jan. 18th, Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown sent an email to all faculty, students, and staff announcing a series of information sessions entitled “Budget Essentials” that would be presented by representatives from the college’s financial and investment offices. The purpose of the presentations was to provide for greater campus awareness about how the finances of the college operate. Enrollment for the meetings was limited and meant to represent the stakeholders in the college — professors, students, staff members and administrators all attended. Presenters have included Brown, Vice President for Development and Alumni Donations Karl Clauss, and Chief Investment Officer Mark C. Amstutz.

The presentations have focused on different aspects of the college’s finances: the first, held on Feb. 1st, gave an overview of how the college makes its annual budget, while the second, held on Feb. 8th, detailed how Swarthmore’s $1.8 billion endowment is managed.

The third meeting, postponed by a week due to inclement weather last Monday, will give information about how financial aid is funded.

According to Brown, The “Budget Essentials” presentations came about because of a perceived interest in the fine details of how the college’s finances operation.

“During my brief time here, I’ve noticed considerable interest among faculty, staff, and students regarding how our finances work and how budgetary decisions are made on campus,” Brown said.

Brown explained that previous presentations about the finances of the college have occurred — including at the coffee talk with the Dean and ad hoc faculty and Manager committees — but were smaller and less comprehensive.

“I’ve had the opportunity to provide a broad overview of the ollege’s financial picture to students, staff, and faculty in other settings, and I’ve found that there’s a strong desire within our community to learn more about these subjects,” said Brown. “The Budget Essentials program evolved from these earlier outreach efforts.”

Details about the college’s finances were disseminated during the meeting. For example, Chief Investment Officer Mark Amstutz revealed that an early investment of $200,000 in Facebook eventually earned the college $30 million. At another point, Brown showed that in the last ten years Swarthmore has spent significantly less in absolute terms on new buildings than its peer institutions — Swarthmore spent half of what Amherst spent and only a quarter of what Williams spent on buildings.

Students have welcomed the presentations but maintain concerns about financial decisions the college has made.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown, ’18, who attended the meetings, said he found them helpful and hoped they would provide a forum for community members to voice their opinions about the budget.

“I think this Budget Essentials program is much needed and am glad that the finance and investments office is offering it. I think the structure of the class has been pretty good, and I hope that the class attendees are given clear avenues to make their voices heard on budget matters at the conclusion of the class,” Seitz-Brown said.

Seitz-Brown also noted, however, that the presentation about how the college used its endowment made him concerned about the college’s priorities.

“One concern is intergenerational equity; it seems like the college hadn’t been spending enough from the endowment compared to peer institutions. It sounds like endowment spending will move closer in line with peer institutions, though, as the number of incoming students on financial aid increases and as the college invests more in building projects on campus,” said Seitz-Brown. “We may offer students a great education, but how could we invest in and do more business with local communities? How could we align the endowment’s investments with our values?”

Brown hopes the program continues and expands in future years.

“Depending on the level of on-going interest, we plan to offer the Budget Essentials program once or twice per year, so that the community can become more engaged and more informed about our budget and related processes,” he said.

Attendees of the event have expressed significant interest in the final presentation regarding how financial aid is budgeted, scheduled to be held this coming Monday at 4 p.m. in Bond Hall.

 

Students put financial literacy to use in volunteer work

in Campus Journal by

Juniors Jake Moon and Tessa Rhinehart spend their free time doing other people’s taxes. The two, along with other members of the Swarthmore Volunteer Income Tax Assistance club, go into neighboring towns to help low-income residents fill out their tax forms and reduce their tax rates. Through this volunteer experience, students get the opportunity to give back to the community and learn a valuable life skill.

An IRS sponsored program, VITA provides free service to families and individuals in Chester, Holmes, Darby, Upper Darby, and Borough. The group recommends programs to their clients according to their needs. For families below a certain income, the group can help clients receive tax credit and even refunds.

“Most of the people who we provide our services to are elderly, and they can’t really do the taxes themselves with something like Turbo Tax,” Moon said. He asserts that there are many advantages to choosing VITA over an online service; families they assist receive individualized help from a real person rather than a computer. “There are some tax services that lie and say they can give you a reduction in tax rates and they just scam you off of money. By having students do it who have no incentive to take their money we can honestly give them the right amount.”

 

In the spring semester of 2014 alone, VITA saved residents in Delaware County over a million dollars in income tax. According to Rhinehart, the group returns around $3.5 million each year depending on the number of volunteers participating.

 

Rhinehart is a social coordinator for the group, and says she got involved in the organization at the activities fair during the beginning of her freshman year. “At the time, I had no idea how to prepare taxes, but I learned how to prepare taxes through participating in VITA,” Rhinehart said. All members of the group are trained in tax preparation and are required to complete the IRS certification process before they can begin volunteering.

 

Moon says one of the most rewarding experiences he has had in the group was helping an elderly woman who initially doubted the group because of their age and experience. “I had an old lady who was a little difficult to deal with because she didn’t entirely trust us; we’re students and we look like students. Through our procedures I gradually gained her trust and she came out really happy with our work. She really thanked us in the end. It was just a little success that I found very gratifying,” Moon said. “You hear a lot of our volunteers talk about stories where there’s a little suspicion in the beginning but then they open up.”

 

Rhinehart says going through the tax preparation process is both a very personal and rewarding process. “You learn a surprising amount about a person’s life: their children, their spouse, glimpses of what their lives are like at home and at work. Interacting with those whose taxes I prepare is definitely my favorite part of VITA.”

Joining the group provides students with valuable volunteer experience and real life skills. “You can learn more about tax code and more of how federal public services work. It’s also a good resume builder if you really want to be career oriented,” Moon said.

 

While the group does not provide tax services to other Swarthmore students, all students are welcome to join the group and learn the skills themselves, while also providing a needed service to members of the greater community.

 

“VITA is definitely a two-way street,” Rhinehart said. “On one hand, Swarthmore VITA makes a big impact on the community of Delaware County. But it also provides an important alternative to tax preparers that require a fee for tax preparation, and its volunteers are specially trained to look for tax opportunities likely to benefit low-income or elderly people. We are conscious of how much we, as volunteers, also learn and grow from VITA.”

MOOConomics and the overhaul of higher education

in Columns/If It Moves/Opinions by

The rising cost and deteriorating quality of American Education has demanded the media’s spotlight numerous times in the past two decades. Despite recent optimistic reports of rising degree attainment, the United States is consistently outpaced by its first-world counterparts. Last year, the U.S. fell to an alarming 9th place with respect to the young adults enrolled in college and 16th in degree attainment, no doubt a result of exceedingly high dropout rates. Historically, the public has turned to the government for a solution to this pressing issue, but reform has proven to be both too slow and exceptionally mild. Indeed, the model for higher education has undergone few significant structural changes since the late 11th century, when the word ‘university’ was coined. Private innovation and growing global access to the internet, however, seem to promise a much-needed and sweeping overhaul of the college experience.

As most college students are well aware, the cost of a standard 4-year college degree is dear and has, with few exceptions, always been so. As The Economist’s Free Exchange column points out, there are two primary causes for this. The marginal cost of production for a university is high, meaning there are significant costs that come with educating an additional student. Each student requires housing, meals, faculty and other support staff, etc. Secondly, it is hard for universities to improve their productivity. Even in large universities, it is virtually impossible to have professors educate more than a few hundred students per semester and still provide a quality experience. This makes higher education a labor intensive industry, with skilled employees that command above-average salaries. Despite a largely competitive market, the combination of these factors has necessitated a high price for the traditional 4-year college degree.

The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has overturned these standard expectations. Though there have been various versions of the MOOC model, the most popular ones are offered at a very low cost (compared to their on-campus counterparts) and are available to anyone with access to the Internet. Lectures can be taken multiple times, have no fixed schedule, and do not require proximity to any central physical campus. In a society that compensates skill highly in the form of wages, MOOCs offer a valuable opportunity to students that do not have access to high-quality university educations.

Beyond the fairly high fixed costs that come from setting up a curriculum, recording lectures, and setting up interactive sites to aid and connect students, MOOCs offer a profitable and consequently sustainable business model. Unlike the high marginal costs associated with standard university education discussed earlier, providing an additional student with education through the MOOC model requires virtually no additional cost. This means that after a MOOC provider has covered its initial cost, every additional enrolled student is almost purely profit. This ensures that MOOCs can always continue providing education at low costs as long as they provide it at a satisfactory quality.

Contrary to the common perception, this low-cost education model does not imply inferior quality. While a MOOC education certainly does not stack up to those provided by prestigious, highly exclusive institutions, it does tend to outperform the median experience. In fact, a study conducted by the United States Department of Education concluded that, on average, students who received a MOOC education did better professionally than those that received a traditional college education.

Despite their obvious benefits, MOOCs still are forced to combat the unfair social stigma imposed on their graduates. As more top-tier universities develop their own version of the MOOC program, however, the bias against online-education is becoming increasingly outdated. Over 1000 new online courses have been introduced since just the beginning of 2012, with the most successful ones offered by elite universities like Harvard and Stanford. As MOOC educations grow in popularity, they will offer a very real substitute to over-priced educations at mediocre universities, making quality higher education increasingly accessible to all socioeconomic levels of society.

The ramifications of a growing American online education system are not merely domestic. The MOOC model makes the highly valued American education experience an international commodity. If implemented correctly, online courses have the potential to instantly and dramatically improve education standards in countries around the world. The positive externalities — the benefits provided to society beyond just the benefit to those who consume MOOC education — will be indisputably immense.

The growing market for quality online education will create a need for institutions that offer a traditional face-to-face education to evolve.  If these universities do not improve the quality of the experience they provide, increase the accessibility of their education, and produce new opportunities that convince students to pay their premium, they will be forced out of business. Though they are far from perfect, MOOCs are a good first step to raising the bar for American education and solving the United States’ systemic inequity of opportunity.

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