Arms race among new luxury apartments includes live-in musicians

If you have the resources, you have some options in shopping for a nice new apartment including a building musician:

Amenities for high rise buildings are generally culled from a well-honed list of known popular offerings—a lounge, gym, a pool, an outdoor deck, and grilling stations wouldn’t really lead anyone to blink an eyelash. Being LEED certified is often expected.

At the 34-story, 298-unit Exhibit on Superior, amenities for the studio, convertible, and 1 to 3-bedroom units include those, as well as keyless entry with smartphone integration, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washer and dryer and more. Quite nice—but the downtown luxury apartment market glut has led to an arms race to attract new residents and keep rents from being slashed.

And even though the price point is comparably lower (and the floor plans are comparably smaller) than other neighborhood offerings to attract a younger demographic, developer Magellan Development Group and MAC Management wanted to bring some artistry and magic to their building (and to their other properties, if this catches on). Here’s the idea.

A contest is open for the best acoustic guitarist and vocalist to live and play for one year at Exhibit on Superior. The winning musician gets free rent at an unfurnished studio for a year, the title of Musician in Residence, and the chance to hone their skills while playing against any number of cool nooks and spaces in the bKL Architecture-designed building. The residents get in-house live entertainment and bragging rights to live in a building with the first so-called Exhibit A-Lister.

My first thought was that sounds like the arms race among colleges to provide amenities for prospective students ranging from excellent food, state of the art gyms, and private and luxurious dorms. Then it hit me: these luxury apartment buildings may be going after that same demographic: college graduates who want the excitement of the city. If we could narrow it even more, perhaps they are employed in a creative industry or field.

After thinking this through a bit, it is clever to pair residential real estate with music. We might expect something like this in commercial spaces or privately-owned property that is trying to operate like public space (perhaps a park like area outside a major office building). But, this continues the trend of some of the other “weapons” in this residential arms race: providing building amenities that encourage sociability while simultaneously offering well-appointed private units. Let’s hope all the residents like the acoustic guitar scene…

Naperville #9 best city for new college graduates

Livability.com just named Naperville as the #9 city for college graduates. Here is the criteria they used:

To determine the best cities for recent college graduates, we analyzed factors such as the number of 25- to 34-year-olds living in each city, the availability of rental properties, unemployment rates, educational attainment levels, use of public transportation and the types of jobs these places offer. We also sought out cities that cater to a younger demographic by offering lots of recreational activities, hot nightlife and a hip vibe. What we found were places where new college graduates are likely to find jobs they’d actually want, homes they can afford and a social scene that allows them to more easily make new friends, fit in and engage with the community.

In assessing the best cities for new college grads, we took into account the top-hiring industries, which, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, are: educational services; professional, scientific and technical services; health care and social assistance; and government.

While it doesn’t say how these different factors are weighted, it seems to be a mix of job and quality of life opportunities. The list isn’t just about unemployment; it also includes cultural elements the “creative class” looks for in an exciting place to live.

And here is what they said about Naperville:

Just 30 miles west of Chicago and located along the DuPage River, Naperville, Ill., provides recent college grads with a blend of small-town charm and big-city amenities. It’s an ideal setting for young professionals who feel more comfortable in a suburban environment but want quick access to the offerings of a major metropolis.

An low unemployment rate of 5.5 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds, a high percentage of non-service industry jobs and excellent public transportation make Naperville an attractive area to start a job search. The city’s employment base includes technology firms, energy companies, retailers and factories. Citizens here are well-educated; more than 66 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Naperville hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. Finding an affordable place to rent won’t be difficult as nearly a quarter of residential properties in the city are rentals, many of which cost less than 30 percent of an average resident’s annual income.

The city’s picturesque Riverwalk and community parks see lots of activity from residents who exercise, play sports or just relax. Naperville’s quaint downtown includes the Theater District, which is home to the widely attended North Central College theater program. Residents can choose from more than 260 restaurants, including the Spanish-themed Meson Sabika and the award-winning Café Buonaro’s Italian restaurant.

This summary hits the high points that most profiles of Naperville:

1. Big city (over 140,000) but small-town feel. Perhaps it is the quaint but bustling downtown that sums this up well: it isn’t too big to be overwhelming but it does offer lots of shopping and dining options.

2. Thriving jobs center. Though Naperville has a large population, it is not just a bedroom community. There are numerous major companies with offices in town and this attracts an educated workforce.

3. The Riverwalk is a scenic and well-designed outside feature. Few communities have such pedestrian-friendly options so close to a vibrant downtown.

Gallup to start surveying college graduates to find if their college degree led to “a great life”

Gallup is working on a new initiative to measure a wider range of life outcomes for college graduates:

As the old saying goes, money can’t buy happiness. And yet, in measuring alumni success and satisfaction, colleges – often prodded by those seeking to hold them accountable – typically look at two things: whether their former students are gainfully employed, and whether they’re making a decent salary.

A new project announced today, led by Gallup and debuting at Purdue University, aims to change that. Focusing on a set of factors that are shown to correlate with “a great life,” the survey of 30,000 graduates annually will provide data on how alumni of groups of colleges (public or private institutions in certain states, for instance, or athletic conferences) are faring and how they compare to national averages. The final product will be a benchmark for student success against which any campus can measure its own graduates, if it works with Gallup individually…

The survey’s line of questioning goes beyond job placement and salary, also inquiring about work place and community engagement, personal relationships, physical fitness, sense of purpose and happiness, and economic management and stress…

“No one is going to suggest that colleges and universities are responsible for 100 percent of your great job and great life,” Busteed admitted, “but obviously, if you go to college and you get a degree, the odds are you increase the probability of having a good outcome.”

Given the arguments about the cost of college, I’m not surprised efforts like this are quickly moving forward. And, as the article notes, there are lots of methodological questions in play: what exactly is “a great life”? How many years after college should people be asked these questions? How can the effects of college be separated out from other life experiences (though people’s perceptions about whether college mattered is important as well)?

At the same time, I’m not opposed to trying to get at these life outcomes after college. Colleges often make the argument they improve the lives of their graduates from earning more to training for careers to giving students room to start living to critical thinking to a broader understanding of the world. Is some of the concern about measuring these things that colleges might not be able to live up to lofty claims? For example, given the findings of Academically Adrift from a few years ago, not all college students are benefiting. Once findings start trickling out, it will then be imperative to see what gets counted as “success” for colleges.

The median college loan debt: $12,800

Growing calls for ways to deal with college loan debt can lead to a statistical question: just how much does “the average” college student owe? Here are some of the figures:

Meet Kelli Space. She went to Northeastern University to get a degree in sociology. And she graduated in $200,000 of student loan debt. In the economy’s newest trillion-dollar crisis, she is the 1 percent.

Kelli is not the face of America’s student debt problem. Among the 37 million people in this country with student loans to pay off, the median balance is $12,800. A whole 72 percent of borrowers have less than $25,000 left in debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

No, students like Kelli are the rarities, the white rhinos. Only about 5 percent of borrowers owe more than $75,000.

The key figures for me: the median is $12,800, meaning that half of people with student loans have less than this figure, half have more. Yet, nearly three-quarters of those with loans have less than $25,000 to pay off. Only 11% have more than $50k in debt.

So why do we keep hearing stories about those who owe mega amounts of money? Perhaps we might think of them as canaries in the mine shaft, students who show how bad the college finance system might be today. But, on the other hand, the statistics suggest that these students are rarities, people who have unusual debt. From these anecdotal and relatively rare stories, it seems like there is a pattern: a student goes to a prestigious school banking on the name of the school to pay off. (One common argument you will find online is that the major should be blamed – this usually puts more creative disciplines, the humanities, and subjects like sociology at the center of blame.) But, the name doesn’t always pay off, the student can’t find a good enough job to start paying off these debts, and the interest just continues to grow.

Overall, we need to work with the statistics more than the anecdotes: most college students do not have more than $25,000 of debt. This is not a small amount but it can be tackled (though the economy doesn’t help).

Forbes’ college rankings signals possible trend of looking at alumni earnings and status

The college rankings business is a lucrative one and there are a number of different players with a number of different measures. Forbes recently released its 2011 rankings and they have a particular angle that seems aimed at unseating the rankings of US News & World Report:

Our annual ranking of the 650 best undergraduate institutions focuses on the things that matter the most to students: quality of teaching, great career prospects, graduation rates and low levels of debt. Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school “reputation” and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending. We try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would: Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree? The rankings are prepared exclusively for Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank founded by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder.

With phrases like “ephemeral measures” and “ill-conceived metrics,” Forbes claims to have a better methodology. This new approach helps fill a particular niche in the college rankings market: those looking for the “biggest bang for your educational buck.”

In their rankings, 30% of the final score is based on “Post-Graduate Success.” This is comprised of three values: “Listings of Alumni in Who’s Who in America” (10%), “Salary of Alumni from payscale.com” (15%), and “Alumni in Forbes/CCAP Corporate Officers List” (5%). These may be good measures (Forbes goes to some effort to defend them) but I think there is a larger issue at play here: are these good measures by which to evaluate a college degree and experience? Is a college degree simply about obtaining a certain income and status?

At this point, many rankings and assessment tools rely on the experiences of students while they are in school. But, with an increasing price for a college degree and a growing interest in showing that college students do learn important skills and content in college, I think we’ll see more measures of and a greater emphasis placed on post-graduation information. This push will probably come from both outsiders, Forbes, parents and students, the government, etc., and college insiders. This could be good and bad. On the good side, it could help schools tailor their offerings and training to what students need to succeed in the adult world. On the bad side, if value or bang-for-your-buck becomes the overriding concern, college and particular degrees simply become paths to higher or lower-income outcomes. This could particularly harm liberal arts schools or non-professional majors.

In the coming years, perhaps Forbes will steal some of the market away from US News with the financial angle. But this push is not without consequences for everyone involved.

(Here is another methodological concern: 17.5% of a school’s total score is based on ratings from RateMyProfessors.com. Forbes suggests it cannot be manipulated by schools and is uniform across schools but this is a pretty high percentage.)

(Related: a new report rates colleges by debt per degree. A quick explanation:

Its authors say they aim to give a more complete picture of higher education — rather than judging by graduation rates alone or by default rates alone — by dividing the total amount of money undergraduates borrow at a college by the number of degrees it awards.

We’ll see if this catches on.)

Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

A new book (Academically Adrift) written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska suggests that many college students don’t graduate with certain skills that colleges claim to be teaching. Here is a brief summary of the findings:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

I wonder how colleges would respond to these findings. Within a 4 year institution (and across the spectrum of 4 year institutions), there are bound to be some students who do well and others who have more struggles. I wonder how much is in this data about the individual level characteristics of students and whether the authors suggest that spending more time doing school work would make a difference. Is it the college students who need to do more work, is it the professors who should be assigning more or asking for more, is it a campus culture that privileges other things over academic work (like extracurricular activities), or some combination of these three?

This suggests schools need to spend more time and effort on these particular skills and need to find ways to assess these (and the students’ progress or need for improvement) within their time at a 4 year institution.

The sociologists suggest there are some differences between disciplines:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

So actually doing more reading and writing makes a difference, no matter what the discipline. What does this mean for liberal arts colleges – is it really the place where students develop these particular skills?