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Five college blind spots

My family has much experience in higher education, not all of it happy. I spent six years as an often struggling undergraduate and grad student. My journalist wife did ten years in higher ed, including three of what she considered hard labor as a visiting professor. Our kids add another 11 years, with the youngest child about to sign up for three more. Please don't ask me what that will cost.

American colleges and universities are the great strength of our education system. They are revered around the world. But those schools put heavy stress on our families, since getting into, paying for and graduating from the ones we most want often exceeds our capabilities. We need to know more about what they are doing to us, so I am happy to see launch two higher education blogs: College Inc. by Daniel de Vise and Campus Overload by Jenna Johnson. Let me celebrate that event by grumbling about what I consider higher education's five biggest blind spots:

1. College privacy rules are a mess. They are difficult to understand and infuriating when they exacerbate a family crisis. I have heard many stories about students getting into trouble, and their parents being among the last to know. University officials will sometimes take pity on a frantic dad and reveal important things in the kid's personal file. But why can't we have more reasonable procedures? Academics who fear intrusive helicopter parents should read the National Survey of Student Engagement report, which reveals that the children of such people do better in college than kids like mine, who didn't hear much from us.

2. Professors know too little about what high schools are doing to prepare students for their classes. University faculty members tell me how wrong the high school Advanced Placement program is to hurt their future students with what they are sure is inadequate teaching. They are aghast to learn that research shows most students who took AP did better in college than similar kids who didn't. Don't bother to ask these distinguished college scholars about the other high school college-level program, International Baccalaureate. They openly discriminate against IB in granting course credit; and when you ask why, they haven't a clue.

3. College admission advertising campaigns are out of control. Ever read any of the search letters that pours into the homes of high school juniors and seniors? They sound like the college won't rest until it persuades that student to attend. See you in the fall! Even the most selective colleges gush over the qualifications of the impressionable recipients but don't bother to explain that even though they received the nice letter, they still have a more than 80 percent chance of being rejected.

4. The best known private universities don't appreciate that they add no more to their students' lives than the much cheaper but less regarded state school across town. Going to college is a great thing, but it is the chance to learn and plan for the rest of one's life that makes the experience special, not the name on the front gate. Ivy League graduates might have an advantage seeking their first jobs. Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, however, discovered that after 20 years, people with good character traits - persistence, charm, good humor - are doing just as well, whether they went to a school like Cornell or one like Cal State Chico.

5. Many colleges shrink from even trying to measure the value they are providing students. When the Bush administration suggested calculating college outcomes in some way, the nation's op-ed pages quickly filled with college presidents begging to be spared that hideous indignity. There are some interesting tests, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, being developed to measure how much analytical skill students acquire in four years. So far, most colleges are treating them like tuition freezes, hoping they will go away.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 24, 2010; 7:28 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, Collegiate Learning Assessment, International Baccalaureate, National Survey of Student Engagement, college admissions, college prestige, college privacy rules, colleges adding value, higher education blogs  
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Oh for the love of Pete - here's Jay using his space to whine about colleges "discriminating" against his precious IB.

It's a socialist UN indoctrination program, THAT'S why it is "discriminated against, Jay. When are you going to understand that? IB can only claim to be college-preparatory, NOT college level.

Stop abusing you privilege as a journalist to advocate for this inferior educational program.

Posted by: lisamc31 | January 24, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

But wait...aren't the universities full of socialists and UN apologists? There must be some other explanation for their bias.

Posted by: wayoutsidethebeltway | January 24, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

I'm in higher ed, myself, and Mr. Mathews gives us a mix of sensible and non-sensible complaints here:

1. This isn't the fault of higher education, it's the fault of federal (and, occasionally, state) laws. FERPA regulations are both highly restrictive and highly vague, and they create amazing amounts of liability for schools that get them wrong. Higher ed would, I think, like to see this fixed.

2. I'm not sure this is accurate--I mean, we see the results of the US secondary system every day we teach our students. Mr. Mathews turns this into a whine about AP and IB, but he also forgets that most of the students who go to college have little or no such rigorous preparation--and, in my experience, many of those students who took AP classes didn't get the rigorous and useful experience a good AP class would have given them.

3. No argument here. In fact, I think most in higher ed agree, but there's a fear among admissions offices, especially at tuition-dependent private colleges, that they can't be the first to let up for fear they wouldn't be able to fill an incoming class.

4. I agree, but then again, I'm employed at a public college, so I may be somewhat biased.

5. Part of the problem is that many of the initial round of suggestions for outcomes assessment in colleges involved the sort of blunt-force standardized approach that has taken root in high schools, and would be even worse for colleges. There's not only the problem of how to do a good job comparing outcomes for, say, a sculpture major and an electrical engineering major, there's also the problem of how you'd compare outcomes between Ivy-like schools and open-access colleges, or even between fine arts programs that focus on digital media versus fine-arts programs that focus on traditional forms of art. Higher ed will always fight back against blunt-force measurement, and that's what many of the proposals out there are.

Posted by: dfbdfb | January 24, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

"But wait...aren't the universities full of socialists and UN apologists? There must be some other explanation for their bias.

Posted by: wayoutsidethebeltway "

Way too funny.

Posted by: edlharris | January 24, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Jay, please, stop with the "measuring value" stuff. Education is an opportunity to enrich an idividual's life and cultivate his or her soul. That can never be "measured".

Posted by: Nemessis | January 25, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse


Brandeis was right when he said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." And you've laid out a case for letting the sun shine in on college.

I've been writing a lot on transparency in education lately and people on all sides of the political perspective seem to be responding: Transparency in Testing, Transparency in Teaching, Transparency in College Admissions, Etc.

What I like about transparency is that it provide its own "free market" accountability. I believe we could rid ourselves of punitive approaches to reform if we went instead to transparence. The free market is served best by free information, not by government meddling.


Posted by: StevePeha | January 25, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

This list leaves out the single biggest problem with colleges and universities: administrative bloat. This problem is especially severe at public colleges and universities.

In what alternate universe do state university presidents deserve half a million dollar plus salaries while faculty salaries stagnate and tuition increases by 20%-30% every year. These guys are no better than the bonus babies at Wall Street firms.

Posted by: kronberg | January 25, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

I totally agree with #3. These marketing letters run contrary to what the universities are all about--careful examination of the truth, honesty about data, respect for individuals. These letters are tragic and disgusting. Top universities should be ashamed of preying on 17 year olds this way.

Posted by: pittypatt | January 25, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

It may be true that kids who took AP do better in college than the kids who didn't, but that doesn't mean that AP courses are worth taking. It's a self-selecting group. The most dedicated, hard-working students take the most AP courses. It's no surprise that they wind up doing well in college.

There is a real problem with the quality of AP courses. Often they are the worst examples of "teaching to the test", and they're not really equivalent to college-level courses.

Posted by: FedUpMom | January 25, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Here's a sixth blind spot.

Any young person headed off to higher education these days should rank order potential institutions by how much student loan debt he/she would likely wind up after either 4 or 5 years to get a degree.

Then they should gather some statistics on starting salary for the degree that they plan to obtain. If they can't pay the estimated debt off in say four years, they should eliminate that institution from consideration.

While this planning process may or may not turn out to be terribly accurate, it will force the young person to confront the economics of obtaining an undergraduate degree and the transition into the work-a-day world.

Not enough of this type of long-range planning is done these days and we see examples of young grads running up $80,000-$90,000 in student loan debt to get a degree in Spanish or some such degree with minimal financial potential.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | January 25, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

We also have to bear in mind that not all college students are 18 year olds partying on their parents' dime. Some students are earning their own way through college with scholarships and jobs. Their parents have no right to their children's educational records without the permission of the student.

Faculty discriminate against the IB? That would never occur to me because I have yet, in my 20 years of college teaching, been asked to consider whether IB should get credit. I know few faculty who've ever had to consider that issue. It usually gets made by someone at a higher pay grade level.

Posted by: Wendy44 | January 25, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the great comments. I will have more on the IB situation soon, and appreciate the deft responses to lisamc31. I wish I were as clever in my frequent exchanges with her.

For FedUpMom, I hope you will have a chance to examine your view more closely. Take a look, for instance, at this data on AP and college success which I cited in a comment last week:
It shows that even when you look at just college students who test poorly, and thus are likely not so dedicated and hard-working, those that have taken AP and gotten at least a 2 on an exam do better in college that those who have not taken AP.
As for the comparison between AP courses and college intro courses, you can argue that the college version is at least as good, and in some cases better, than AP in about 10 percent of colleges, mostly very selective, where intro courses are relatively small, taught only by the professor and have very high-achieving students. But the other 90 percent of those introductory courses are mostly large state colleges where the standard of instruction is lower than in AP, the professors less involved and the teaching often done by people who have little training or experience as teachers, compared to the people who teach AP. The AP student, by contrast, has more time with the teacher than that intro course college student, her teacher is likely more experience in teaching, the overall level of her fellow students is higher and the final exam is much better, being written and scored by a panel of outside experts, not just one individual professor and his TAs as is the case with the standard intro course college final. The AP exam results, unlike the college intro course exam, are carefully studied for signs of weak questions. The AP exam is also longer, 3 hours compared to the usual 2 hours or less college final, and has in many cases a much higher proportion of essay questions that require thought and analysis than the big state college exams do. Because of the problems of grading so many, state college finals are often are full of multiple choice questions scored by machines.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 25, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

The threat the AP classes pose to the collegiate system is a reduction in class size in required courses in arts and science. As students move to majors in professional schools, to focus on majors where there are job opportunities after graduation, arts and science programs are being relegated to service programs. This reduces the “butts in the seat” rule that administrators use in the allocation of monies to departments. This sets up a conflict on campus between Arts and Science professors and professional school professors. The conflict is exacerbated by the difference in salaries. Salaries in professional schools can be three times higher than those in Arts and Science. The difference is not a reflection of intellect but one of supply and demand.

While AP classes can be an effective tool for educating bright high school students, the K-12 system needs to do a better job of preparing the thirty-five percent of high schools grads that go off to college. At the university that I retired from there was a need to significantly expand the remedial program in math and English during my tenure. When I started teaching at the university level, in a college of business, the university had two remedial classes - one in English and one in math. Twenty-six years later the university had two remedial English courses and four remedial math classes. The remedial math classes start with arithmetic.

AP classes also must be real. At special registration sessions for incoming freshman, our university provided testing for placement in English and math, as well as general guidance for classes, given the students intended major. It was a service being offered where the students were being treated as customers. On more than one occasion I had to console students who had taken and passes AP classes, yet scored so low on placement tests that they were required to take remedial course work.

There is a place for AP in the educational system. My observation, however, is that more and more of the high school students must be from Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average

Posted by: rlebalnc | January 25, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

My pet peeve blindspot? The extent to which the tuition/financial aid game make real value tradeoffs profoundly difficult to make. A $40,000/yr school makes little sense for an undergraduate - UNLESS the lucky undergrad gets $38,000/yr in grants and other aid. This two-step is almost entirely unpredictable until package letters go out at the last minute.

There is little more anxiety-inducing in both students and parents than a capricious judgement from a disinterested college administrator somewhere that's outside their control, with huge consequences for parent and student alike.

I've got 9, 11, and 13 year-old kids. Each one smarter than the other. They're all likely to go to university, and be able to gain admission to the highest-ranked universities in the world. With tuition rates rising at large multiples against inflation (never mind wage growth) and the increasingly arcane games universities are playing with financial aid, I'm looking forward to about 13 years of ulcers.

Posted by: utopia27 | January 25, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Maybe its just my computer, but the links appear to be broken.

Posted by: redhouse18 | January 25, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Is the four year, liberal arts degree even the best education anymore? With three currently in college, it appears to me that at least 1/4 of their degree is entirely unrelated to their career. Spare me the "broadening the mind" mantra. More focus should be on the major, less on general studies, and most degrees should be attainable in three year by the average student going full time. If you want to be a physician, art is nice, so is geology, but shouldn't your biology/chemistry degree be in those fields...not in English Lit. This applies even more to technical fields, such as computer science degrees. Ever wonder why so many graduate from college, only to need 3-4 years in their chosen field to actually learn how to do it...because when it comes to the BA or BS degree, we don't train people how to work in their field! We need to take a long hard look at higher ed, and decide what value the current process of a liberal arts education has for us as a society...I for one think its archaic and needs to be reconsidered.

Posted by: gprudich | January 25, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

As usual, Mr. Matthews, takes on the education bureaucracy and people go nuts. Keep up the good work, Jay!

Posted by: IowaLover | January 25, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

thanks redhouse18. I did those at home on my laptop yesterday. I will now try to clear them up on my office machine. Maybe I was paying too much attention to the football games.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 25, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I would disagree with #4. It may be somewhat true for kids from affluent backgrounds but the social connections made at a top university are invaluable for those from modest backgrounds like my DH. It's unlikely he'd be where he is today if he'd gone to the local no-name state college. He got his current position in a large part because his lab partner at Stanford passed my DH's resume along to a headhunter.

When I'm feeling cynical, I view an Ivy caliber university as not much more than a country club with a quarter million dollar initiation fee...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 25, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

The data say you are wrong, CrimsonWife, at least on average. And thanks to redhouse18, I have fixed up all the links so you can now read the Dale-Krueger study for yourself.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 25, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

In other words, if your DH had not turned out to be a person of strong character and great productivity, he would have failed no matter how much withered Ivy was drooping from his university gate. And those same strengths would have propelled him upward even if he had gone to Enormous State U, Tank McNamara's alma mater. First job, maybe it helps, but after that you have to do the job or often you're gone. Look at the data.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 25, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

New York Times Opinion Video on the Down side of AP

Posted by: Nemessis | January 25, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Ahhh...another whine about IB! Why don't colleges accept the SL level courses for credit? They may prepare you well for college, but AP courses are based on college courses -- IB isn't. AP is meant to get kids college credit. IB isn't. AP is designed by an organization whose board of trustees consist of many college educators. IB doesn't (they are almost exclusively from secondary education organizations).

Now, the big question: since IB, on a student by student basis, is so much more expensive than AP, why is the program not on the chopping block for the Fairfax county budget? If Fairfax county would concentrate on AP, parents would be grateful for their kids to be allowed to take courses that will specifically save them money on tuition by getting college credit. The county could save money itself and provide the opportunity to for students to save money at the same time.

Posted by: MG14 | January 25, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-20 are also adults and not "kids" or "teens", meaning they shouldn't be called those words. Jay Matthews is an ageist for calling young women and young men "kids". Young women and young men are adults, thus higher education privacy laws must not be changed to invade the privacy of young women and young men in university. Universities must better honor the International Baccalaureate programme so that university students don't have to take unecessary courses of which they've taken in high school.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | January 25, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I agree with #3. As the parent of a HS senior, I shudder at the number of trees that died for the colleges to recruit my son. He never opened any of their mailings.

Posted by: goalymom | January 25, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Btw, there has been an interesting discussion on College Confidential concerning point #1 college privacy rules and the lack of parental notification when problems arise.

Posted by: goalymom | January 25, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

The Wall Street Journal had an article in 7/08 that found the median salary for college graduates 10 years after graduation is 34% higher for Ivy Leaguers than graduates of other schools:

My brother-in-law graduated from a state school last May and he's working full-time as a cashier at Target. Yes, there's a recession but I don't think he'd be working there if he had a Stanford degree like my DH has.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 26, 2010 12:08 AM | Report abuse

I agree with crimsonwife.

I think in previous studies, there was no distinction after 20 years IF you came from a college educated family.

If like me, (and I'm guessing crimson husband) you were first generation and working class, there were definite advantages after twenty years.

Having been lucky enough to get into an Ivy, I have to tell you I saw differences than and now on the education. What the people I know who went to state schools had to do would not have counted for class work at my school. One of them was telling my niece the first two years were like another two years of high school. I never studied so hard in my life and I did take AP.

On the eighteen year olds are adults. Yes, they are. Adults also pay their own bills and don't call home for money.

More importantly, reverse it. If your spouse/parent suddenly started going into a tail spin at work, start showing up late and leaving early, started looking depressed or even suicidal, wouldn't you want a hint? Not your sibling, not some random relative, but someone you were intimately involved with.

Posted by: brcollins42 | January 26, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

My DH isn't a first generation college graduate, but he's the first (and so far only one) in his family to attend a "brand name" university. The only reason he even applied is because one of his teachers encouraged him to. He grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood full of blue collar and low-level civil servants (like my IL's). It is a very, very different environment from the kind of affluent suburban Ivy obsessed neighborhood in which I grew up. I had a lot more valuable social connections before I ever got my college acceptance letter than my DH did.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 26, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the author's comment about privacy rules. Although according to law these "kids" are adults, many are not independent or adult. If they are, then my comments don't apply. Parents need to know when their students are in trouble, that includes things like not going to class, flunking mid-terms, withdrawing from classes, sleeping all day, and other mental health issues. We don't step over bodies lying in the street, at least not yet, but that seems to be what this adult-at-18 mentality recreated. This new right all goes back to the Vietnam era, when young men were asked to die in a foreign country but were not allowed to drink or vote, etc. The law was changed.
Unless a student is emancipated from their parent, they are not yet "adult", and parents need to know before there is trouble. So help may be gotten and an education may help students achieve life's goals, and perhaps my family could have avoided or reduced the situation we find ourselves in. College must become more user friendly if they wish to remain a valuable asset to the nation.
Otherwise don't send me the bill.

Posted by: stacycha62 | January 26, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

To all the people going on about the issue of colleges not informing parents of students' problems, I'd remind them that this is not a problem of the colleges' doing--it's the result of a federal law, FERPA. FERPA causes enough headaches and reporting hassles for colleges that I'd be willing to wager that the vast majority of college administrators and faculty would be very happy to see it go away, or at least be changed in very significant ways.

Posted by: dfbdfb | January 26, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Imagine a set of triplets. One goes to college, and his parents expect the college to notify them if he gets in trouble or has health issues. The second joins the army, goes to the Middle East, kills people, helps people, maybe rapes a local woman and maybe stops a rape from happening, and his parents know about this only if he is wounded, receives a medal, gets court-martialed, or tells them. The third gets a job, moves into his own apartment or in with friends, does whatever he wants, and never calls his parents or even tells them where he is working. Which of the three is more adult and deserving of privacy?

As for the students' parents paying the bills, that is a financial arrangement between the parents and the students, just as it is when parents help their adult children buy a house or help them out financially for any other reason--it might be an outright gift, it might be a loan, and it might be financing with the unwritten understanding that if the parent needs help in his old age the offspring will be able to supply it. If the parents attach strings--demanding a certain grade level or standard of behavior--that is for the parties involved to work out and it is not up to the colleges to enforce it.(It should also be possible for a person to work his way through college without taking a decade to do it.)

If you are worried that your 18-year-old is too immature to live away from home, you are several years too late.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 28, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

After teaching high school ten years, I appreciate all that Mr Mathews has done to accelerate high school AP classes and curriculum. My problem is that college must be way too easy if so many high school kids can pass college classes in high school. I love the Challenge Index--but remember--it is only one measure of the competency of a high school. Mine for one was quite highly ranked for years, but it means lots of rigor is available to those who can do it--but it doesn't measure how good ahigh school is for the rest of its student body.

Re college privacy--I remember the situation at GW when a student at GW University drank too much, ended up in the ER and was immediately expelled from GW for drinking. A student who is in this situation is inbetween competeing problems. Get medical help and get thrown out or don't get medical help and rish serious consequences in order to protect privacy.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | January 29, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I have one to add. Colleges that ask the PARENT for an essay about their kid, the college applicant. This discriminates against applicants who do not have literate parents, those who don't have computers, and those who just do not have the time to come up with a decent essay on top of work, younger kids, etc. To me, this requirement just screams "elitist."

Posted by: Whazzis | January 30, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

Wendy44: At my school a small group of faculty were asked to evaluate the AP and IB exams for our department about 5 years ago. We had very little to go on, but did check to see how those with various AP scores did in our classes. (I don't know that we've had any IB exams in our discipline, so we left those where they were.)

AP is great for sure. But it lacks large project work. In World History or Computer Science that can hurt when you are expected to do big projects in the class after the one you got credit for. People teach to the test and a test can't evaluate big project work. IB appears better that way. I was grateful for my AP credit for World History and Computer Science as a student. I also see a LOT of AP credit these days as an advisor.

Privacy: I'm not sure I'd want to change the rules. Students sometimes need help from the parents, and sometimes need room. As an advisor I'd like to have the choice, but that's also scary from a liability viewpoint and student trust viewpoint. In any case, federal law binds us now for better or for worse.

Private Schools:
My undergraduate was a small private school and I'm pretty sure I'd not even be in the field I'm in if I'd gone to a larger state school. My graduate school was large and moderate and I was much better prepared than most. I now teach at a top-10 public school and feel that the teaching here isn't as good as the small school for the most part. (Small engineering schools tend to fall apart a bit by the senior year where the large research publics improve.)

And finally, yes income is a good measure of value of the education. But I can say without a doubt that when my students hit the job market, they are, on the whole, better than their peers from poorer schools. By a lot.

Posted by: bobtom222 | January 31, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

A few comments on the Ivy vs. non-Ivy debate:

If you were to take two grads, one from an Ivy and one from a non-Ivy, and place them in the same jobs with the same salaries, then it may be true that hard work means more than the school when measured well into the future. But, we all know that isn't what happens. The Ivy grad has access to jobs that pay more and those jobs won't be available to everyone else. Some companies will only hire from Ivy and Ivy-equivalent schools. And, at least among the Ivy grads I know, they started out in jobs that had more responsibility and paid better than many of the jobs held by their peers who did not go to Ivy league schools. I know, this is all anecdotal evidence, but many of us have certainly seen these to be true.

Another point to consider is that there are plenty of jobs with high salary potential that are not discriminatory in this way and that would skew the results of any study. For example, one can earn a high salary as a stockbroker or an experienced salesperson and it will not matter what school one attended, nor is there likely to be much bias in the hiring process. In fact, these are jobs in which your performance is really all that matters. But, this is not likely to be the case for the high laying jobs at a hedge fund management company, a place where access and pedigree probably matter. Nor is this going to be the case when it comes to non-sales management roles where it can be much harder to measure value and performance, meaning that the perception of performance suggested by graduating from a top-ranked school has a great deal more weight.

And, as has been touched on a bit already, the network really does matter. I did not go to an Ivy League school. And, my alma mater does have a large alumni population. But, there is no network at all. Graduates dispersed all over the nation, a weak alumni organization, a disproportionately small endowment, and no overly impressive college reputation - no network. While nobody will look down on me for having graduated from my alma mater, there is nobody to reach out to for assistance, guidance, or to help gain access (to jobs, companies, private clubs). If these things are ultimately what the Ivy tuition is buying, it is worth it for many people because you can't really make up for it.

Posted by: dsandrowitz | February 1, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

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