Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Soaring college costs and the Penn State private plane

Steven Brill
Jul 17, 2012 12:41 UTC
1. How high are universities flying?

I was amazed to see this sentence in the piece the New York Times’s ever-amazing Jo Becker wrote last week about all the goodies outgoing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno negotiated in a new contract even as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was imploding around him: “He would also have the use of the university’s private plane…”

Penn State has a private plane? Sure, the school probably charters a jet when the team travels. But do the university executives have their own jet? How many other universities have perks like this?

As this article from Bloomberg.com documents, the relentless rise in higher education tuition and other costs has trapped students in debt from readily available student loans backed by us taxpayers. It is fast becoming a national scandal akin to the mortgage crisis. Which means we need some tough, fresh reporting finally holding university leaders accountable for spending and management efficiency.

According to news reports Penn State trustees raised tuition on the main campus last week by 2.9 percent. University officials bragged that this was the “lowest percentage tuition boost in 45 years and one of the smallest in the nation.” However, that raise followed a 4.9 percent increase the year before, and it exceeded the pace of inflation in any event. Sure, state aid to the school was cut, but a check of the university’s website reveals that the overall expense budget for the coming school year is still up $131 million, or 3.2 percent, over the year before, again outpacing inflation and despite those cuts in state aid. The overriding reality is that higher education remains a gold mine for reporters looking for waste and lack of accountability.

Air Paterno may be a good hook to get people interested. Which other schools have planes?

Hooked on drug ads, education collision in Hawaii, and the gas frenzy

Steven Brill
Mar 27, 2012 12:53 UTC

1. Are Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Brian Williams hooked on Cymbalta?

Every time I suffer through the (simultaneously timed) commercial breaks on one of the network evening news shows I wish I could read a story about prescription drug advertising on television. I’ll bet these ads now account for two-thirds or more of revenues for the network news shows, whose viewer demographics are apparently perfect targets for drugs directed at older people with erectile dysfunction, withering bones, dry eyes, insomnia, lung malfunction (as illustrated by an elephant sitting on some guy’s chest), incontinence, and whatever it is that is cured by something called Cymbalta, whose ads I think I saw on all three shows the other night.

To what extent does the federal government’s decision to allow, beginning in the mid-1990s, such direct-to-consumer ads keep these once-revered nightly news shows afloat? (A sidebar should also cover how these ads boost the economics of struggling magazines, in large part because the rules require a page of small print detail about dosage and side effects following the glitzy image ad.) At a time when healthcare costs are a national crisis, does the American policy of allowing these ads, which most countries prohibit, create unnecessary demand and needless expense? Or do they give patients important information? Does telling me I might have a disease that I had never heard of help me address a malady before it gets worse, or does it make me a prescription-guzzling hypochondriac? How does the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such advertising, evaluate all that, and what kind of lobbying do the networks and drug companies do to influence that debate? Or is there no longer a debate?

And what are the rules governing the hilarious recitations of possible side effects? How fast is the announcer allowed to breeze through describing the risk of suicide, hives, sleepwalking, backache, swelling of the tongue, depression, migraines, miscarriage or four-day (or is it four-hour?) erections?

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