The True Value of Diversity

January 28, 2008

What is diversity?

I am 25 years old, fairly young, probably still very naive, and I have lived my entire life in northern Ohio. Anyone from the area can tell you that Ohio is not exactly the capital of diversity in any sense, and if anyone tries to tell you that it is they are either very sheltered or they are fooling themselves. Having grown up in an area where everyone is essentially ‘like’ you, recognizing the value of diversity can be a very, very challenging task.

Upon starting my first ‘corporate’ job (working for a fortune 100 company) a couple of years ago, I was quickly put through a week-long ‘diversity training program’ that was supposed to be designed to help all employees recognize and appreciate the ‘value’ of a diverse workforce. After the first day of the training, I was pretty disappointed to find out that the ‘diversity training program’ was actually nothing more than a ‘try to tolerate your neighbors and don’t make fun of anyone at work’ training program.

I have to admit that prior to beginning my graduate degree last year I thought that I knew what diversity was and why it was important. While growing up, I had friends from other races and ethnic backgrounds… so I knew what diversity was, right? When I began my graduate program I saw that diversity is something entirely different…

Do we need to take another look at how we view diversity?

The standard method of teaching diversity in the U.S. has remained unchanged for quite some time, and I think that it may be time that we re-examine our methods.

In most elementary schools, children are first introduced to the concept of diversity by teaching them through various ‘holiday traditions exercises’… in other words, the first exposure to learning about the value of diversity that many American children receive is learning that diversity means ‘jewish kids celebrate Hanukkah’, or that ‘some african cultures celebrate Kwanzaa’, etc… as children continue into middle and high school, this approach changes to more of a ‘tolerance-based’ approach, essentially focusing on the idea that we all inhabit this earth together, and that we need to accept each other’s differences in order to get along… is this what diversity is? Does learning about diversity and cultural differences have no value other than tolerance? We seem to be telling our children (from a very young age) “Sure, we are all different, and it makes things tough… Get over it.”

More disturbingly, there is a strong movement in schools to eliminate these ‘holiday celebrations’ altogether. Although they are going about teaching diversity the wrong way, some mention of it is better than none. Numerous lawsuits have been brought forth in the past few years aimed at removing from classrooms any acknowledgment of the cultural differences that makes us all unique. Evidently, teaching children that their friends may celebrate other holidays because they belong to another religion is infringing upon their rights… Would they truly be better off by ignoring the fact that not everyone believes the same things they do? Evidently some socially conservative whack-jobs think so (and I must admit, I am fairly socially conservative when it comes to religion).

The Right Way to Teach Diversity

When I began my graduate studies, I was for the first time in my life surrounded by (and forced to work in close proximity with) people from numerous other cultures. In a matter of days, I went from having no concept of what diversity truly is to working face-to-face on a daily basis with people from India, Nepal, Croatia, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, etc…

The experience of working with (and learning from) people from so many different cultures and backgrounds has been truly priceless. I have developed numerous technical and analytical skills and have had many experiences in my studies that will benefit me as my career progresses, but none of them compare to the insight I have gained from working and studying with the international students. It has become very apparent to me that the true value of understanding diversity is not the ability to be tolerant of those around you… the true value lies in the diversity itself and is a result of the various life experiences, outlooks, beliefs, and cultural differences that each member of society brings to the table. If we can learn to appreciate the value of each individual’s unique set of knowledge and beliefs, then tolerance will be a simple consequence of respecting and valuing the ideas and thoughts of others. Rather than teaching tolerance in our schools and workplaces, we should teach the concept that when we may not have the right answer to whatever problem we are facing, someone from a different background may have a unique and valuable perspective.

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The Next Big Credit Crunch

January 25, 2008

Contrary to what the mass media would have you believe, Generation Y has more on its agenda than obsessing over Britney Spears, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, and Facebook. As a matter of fact, most members of Generation Y in the U.S. will attend college, and many will graduate. Many may even continue on to pursue degrees in medicine, law, or other advanced degrees. Along the way, they will develop their understanding of the world around them, make new friends, and possibly even have a good time while doing it. If they are like most other modern college students, they will also rack up a massive amount of debt.

The Expense

College has become somewhat of a necessity for the modern American youth. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when only the most wealthy, driven, or inquisitive people continued their education following high school, but now almost every child from the ‘middle class’ feels compelled to go to college or risk having no real chance at wealth and the ever foggier definition of ‘success’.

But what is the real value of a college education? Does it guarantee a lucrative job offer? Does it truly improve your earning potential over the duration of your career? If so, how much debt does it justify accruing?

Here are the facts:

The average bachelor’s degree recipient will graduate with between $19,000 and $40,000 in debt. The average graduate student will graduate with an additional $31,700 in debt beyond what they accrued during their undergraduate studies. Law and medical students will graduate with $91,700 in debt on average.

At a local State University, the current tuition rate for a full time undergrad student is $4200 a semester. Add to this the expense of a dorm room and meal plan, and you can add an additional $8000 per year. This totals $16400 per year over an average of 5 years for a total cost of $82000. Ouch. You better hope that the lucrative job offer comes through… but will it?

Law students are an excellent case in point. Many, if not most, will graduate with about $100,000 worth of student loans. Payed back over the course of 25 years at an interest rate of 8%, this amounts to a monthly payment of $771.82 a month… no problem for a newly minted lawyer, right?

Wrong.

The average starting salary for a first year law associate is roughly $46,000 a year. Take out taxes and a 401k contribution and a new lawyer is taking home about $2500 a month. If they plan on starting a family, this could be a real problem. For students who rack up this kind of debt and graduate with a degree in a field like education or the liberal arts, they are screwed.

The Next Credit Meltdown

This all sounds real scary, but most college students aren’t in this position, right?

Wrong again. Look at the facts.

This could be the foundation for an economic crisis larger than the housing crisis that we have been feeling the effects of lately. With so much debt, many of these students will have two options: pay off their student loans and live in an apartment until they are 50, or try to buy a house and start a family. If they go with the latter option, it seems obvious that either the house or the student loans will go into default, and you can bet that both the student loan provider and the bank who owns the mortgage will want their money. Will the government step in with another plan to help Generation Y save their homes? I imagine we will find out in another 10 to 15 years.

‘Ethics’ and ‘Student Loan Provider‘ – Two phrases that don’t belong in the same sentence.

Why hasn’t this issue already been addressed? Because both the schools and the student loan providers stand to benefit from taking advantage of the students.

In mid-2007, a huge scandal involving numerous student loan providers and school officials was exposed. The situation basically involved the student loan providers offering incentives to school financial aid officers for ‘selling’ their loans to students. JPMorgan Chase spent $74,000 wining and dining more than 200 school officials on a cruise ship. They also employed five college student loan officers at the bank while they were still employed at the university. At Columbia University in New York, the head of financial aid was suspended (yes, suspended, not fired) when it was discovered that he had earned $100,000 on stock in a loan company that he regularly recommended to students. The government took measures to ensure that this would be discouraged in the future and to prohibit student loan officers from accepting ‘gifts’ from banks for selling student loans, but the damage had already been done to the countless number of students who had already been sold into loans that they may not have understood or needed. Who are the schools really looking out for, anyway? Shouldn’t they be looking out for what is in the best interest of their students?

In any case, what is done is done. It seems that the legislation that was passed in 2007 was enough to ‘smooth things over’ and get everyone to turn their heads while the future generations of the U.S. are duped into an over-priced education by banks and corrupt university officials looking to make a quick buck. Our politicians will continue to argue about the merits of universal health care and ‘the war against terror’ while Generation Y digs itself into a hole of debt from which there is no escape. Eventually, the misfortune of America’s youth will be the misfortune of America’s economy. Our leaders had better take notice.