Archive for February, 2014

Snack sense?

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

To pass the time while I creep through the Novato Narrows on the way home from work, I often listen to Podcasts. One of my favorites is Freakonomics. Although the topic of Friday’s Podcast – “Why Marry?” – was interesting, it was the commercial that aired during it that was really thought provoking.

The ad was for a service that delivers a box of snacks to your house…sort of a snack-of-the-month club. But when you sign up for this service, you don’t get bags of Jacked Ranch-Dipped Hot Wings-Flavored Doritos and dozens of Rockin’ Nut Road Snickers cocooned in bubble wrap and delivered by UPS to your doorstep. No, this service is sends precious little bags of healthy snacks like Orange Crush Granola and Honeycomb Sunflower Kernals. Ahhh, how sweet.

This concept of home-delivered snacks makes no sense to me; did the investors in this online company eat a few too many hemp and chia seed coin crackers? What unmet need does this service provide?

I’m wondering if one of their initial strategy meetings went something like this:

“There is really a scarcity of places to buy snacks. And I’m sure there are families who would love to pay double what they would at Target for a bag of trail mix, just to have the thrill of opening a box of goodies that they may not even like.”

Like I said, I don’t get it.

Unlike services that have monthly deliveries of craft beers or special wine, snacks can be bought at so many places that we frequent anyway, why would we need a service to deliver them? Buying snacks is just part of doing our regular shopping, whether it’s a bag of Cinnamon Almonds at Trader Joe’s or a 10 pound bag of chocolate-covered acai berries at Costco. Plus, isn’t half the fun of eating snacks, choosing them depending on if you’re craving crunchy or salty or sweet? The snacks in this service are pre-selected; I would feel a little like a toddler who is told to “eat this because it’s good for you.”

Given that one-third of the population is obese, there’s much more of a need for a service in which people show up at our houses to take snacks out of our cupboards, not bring us more. Goodness, with this service, even the hope of burning a few calories walking from your car to the store is gone. Calories just appear at your door.

Actually, I think this company has it backwards. Who would be embarrassed about pushing a shopping cart filled with dehydrated apple slices and Whole Wheat Fig Bars? It’s not the healthy snacks that should be ordered online where no one can see what you’re buying. It’s the Cheetos and Red Vines that should show up in a plain brown box and unwrapped in the privacy of your own home.

In good form for college

Monday, February 17th, 2014

A day off from work to take care of the details of life is a huge gift. And on this President’s Day, I’m celebrating having time to wrap up the last of the seemingly never-ending forms that are required in the college application process. I spent the day copying the tax returns, W-2s, and 1099s for us and Jennifer because a couple of the schools that Jennifer is applying to want to make sure that we didn’t under-report any of our income on the 20 page CSS Profile. That form makes filling out the FAFSA seem fun but again, I was grateful to have the day off on MLK Day to do it.

The copies of all these tax and financial documents – they stopped short of asking for our last Mastercard bill to see if we fall into the category of Nordstrom or Dollar Store shoppers – will be on their way tomorrow to the College Board where Northwestern and Villanova can probe the depths of our financial situation before determining if they accept Jennifer (she thinks it’s a long shot) and if they will pony up an scholarship money.

I looked up how many high school seniors apply to Northwestern and it’s about 32,000; so by the deadline of March 3, 32,000 packets of tax returns will arrive at a PO Box in Illinois to be scanned in and plugged into some hugely complex algorithm to spit out the award letters for the 18% of students who will be accepted.

While we are very proud that Jennifer did her research to select the schools she wanted to apply to and really owned the application process with only a little bit of nagging from me about upcoming deadlines, the reality is that there is a very good chance that even if she does get accepted, she would have to borrow the cost of a Mercedes sedan in order to attend one of these prestigious schools. That just not something we will let her do.

We have been encouraging her to come up with a Plan B – go to the JC, get an internship and try again in two years. That…and in the meantime, pray a lot. I know we are.

College love letters

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Last week I wrote about the last ditch pleas through emails that colleges were making to our daughter,Jennifer, to encourage her to apply their particular school. The subject lines of the emails sounded pretty desperate on the part of the colleges – there were statements like “Application deadline extended just for you!” I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a subject line certain to get the attention of a 17 year-old; “Apply for FREE! And receive a yearlong supply of Proactiv!

So I was feeling pretty special – colleges were reaching out to Jennifer to recruit her to their school. Sure, her SAT scores, GPA and activities aren’t so remarkable that the admissions officer at an Ivy League is going to be paying us a personal visit but still, she is obviously a good enough student that she is in demand by a bunch of colleges.

Then I came across an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal which made me realize how naïve I am about what’s really important to many colleges. What I learned is that a typical, above-average student like my daughter really isn’t all that special to them. She represents tens of thousands of dollars in tuition but a high school football player who can help a school win a bowl game – those are the kids who represent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the college or university and who are really worth wooing.

As I found out in the article, because it is so important for schools to recruit star athletes, colleges don’t just send out emails to recruit top high school football players, coaches send hand-written letters…and not just one or two, but often hundreds of them to high school seniors.

The article cited the example of Matt, a high school senior who is a 340 pound tackle in Kentucky. Matt said he gets on average, 50 letters a day from colleges. In November, he received 270 letters from Notre Dame but ended up signing with Kentucky who had also bombarded him with letters. The Kentucky coach said, “It shows them the staff will do whatever we have to do [to recruit them]. We’re willing to go overboard.”

And I thought college was about academics.

Would I have felt less sick reading that colleges send hundreds of letters to National Merit Finalists to recruit them? Maybe.

But I guess colleges are just like any other business: it makes sense for them to invest their energies where they will get the biggest return – and that means going after the student who has the best stats on the football field – not on the SAT.

College calling

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

February 1st was a day of celebration in our house because when Jennifer clicked “Submit” at 8:30pm on Saturday night, it marked the completion of the college application process for her. Now, she just has to wait to see if the mailman brings fat 9×12” envelopes containing acceptance letters or skinny business-size envelopes with rejection letters.

Even though Jennifer is done with her selection of schools, apparently, there are a lot of schools that aren’t done with her. Whereas in the fall, literally pounds of brochures from colleges arrived in our mailbox every day, showing off their picturesque campuses and attractive and diverse student body; now that we’re moving into spring and closer to May 1st – the date that students have to commit to the college they will attend – it is Jennifer’s gmail Inbox that is overflowing.

She told me that on one day last week, she got emails from 15 different colleges; each one practically begging her to apply. There were some quite creative subject lines in those emails; here are a few:

“Jennifer, did time get away from you?”

“Because of your outstanding character, we’re extending our admission deadline.”

“Apply for free!”

And my favorite, “Don’t despair! There’s still time to apply!”

It isn’t the application process that is causing Jennifer despair; it’s the thought of the tens of thousands of dollars of student loans that she might end up owing that is causing her despair.

The desperate sound of the emails that Jennifer has gotten reflects what I’ve been reading in the news. The boom times for colleges are over; college enrollment is expected to decline in the coming years. And as an article in the New York Times said, “Hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, raising questions about their financial health — even their survival. The most competitive colleges remain unaffected, but gaining admission to middle-tier institutions will most likely get easier.”

I’m just sure Stanford isn’t sending out emails telling high school seniors “don’t despair.”

The article went on to say that to keep up their enrollment numbers, even administrators and professors got on the phone to call students who had been accepted but not committed, to ask them to take a second look at their school.

Jennifer: you had better check your voice mail. There could be a message from a college president or two.