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Posts published by “Ulrich Boser”

On the Bargain Express: The route to a college degree may pass through two-year schools, ROTC, or Mom’s kitchen

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Vanessa Flores always wanted to attend the University of Southern California. She grew up near the school in Los Angeles, and her mother worked at the university as a contracts manager. But when USC offered Flores admission, her mother and father balked at the nearly $10,000 in room and board costs. So Flores struck a deal with her folks: She would live on campus her freshman and sophomore years and then stay at home and commute the following two years. "It was tough living with my parents," she says. "You can't just roll out of bed and go right to class. You have to get in your car and drive." Yet, she adds, "I saved anywhere between $15,000 to $20,000."

 

MAKING A DEAL. Vanessa Flores helped her parents afford to send her to the University of Southern California by agreeing to live two years at home.
As the price of a college degree soars-tuition at four-year, public universities shot up 7 percent on average last year-students are increasingly considering less expensive alternatives to the traditional college experience, including attending a community college, living at home, or joining the military. While such strategies can cut college costs in half, experts warn that they can backfire. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who enroll in two-year colleges or carve out time to work before enrolling in school end up taking longer to get their degrees-and are more likely to drop out. "There are a lot of ways to cut down on costs," says CollegeMoney.com financial planner KC Dempster. "But parents need to take the time-and students need to take the time-to evaluate them. They aren't right for everyone."

Community college has become one of the most attractive options for students who want a low-cost, four-year degree. The schools are inexpensive-average annual tuition is $2,191-and they can serve as a springboard to four-year universities. After attending Hostos Community College in New York City for five semesters, Folashad Kornegay transferred this year to New York University. "I always knew I would go to a four-year school," she says. "Community college is a great place to start out. It's cheap, and there are a lot of opportunities to learn."

But making the leap from a two-year school to a four-year institution isn't always easy. Credits earned at a community college might not all transfer, and university hopefuls have to perform well academically to get an offer of admission. To make her application attractive to NYU, Kornegay enrolled in a rigorous set of liberal arts courses, participated in various extracurriculars, and maintained a 3.6 grade-point average. When considering a community college, students should be sure to ask about transfer rates. While some two-year schools send only 5 percent of their students on to four-year colleges, others transfer over 30 percent. In recent years, some states like Florida and Pennsylvania have eased the transfer process by guaranteeing community college graduates a spot at one of the states' four-year universities.

Other students have found the Reserve Officers Training Corps a successful way to pay for college. The Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTC train students to be military officers while they earn their degrees. About half of all cadets receive scholarships, which vary in size by school and armed service division, and all juniors and seniors receive tax-free stipends of several hundred dollars for living expenses. Students who win ROTC scholarships can quit after freshman year and owe nothing. But anyone who leaves during sophomore year or later must pay back the balance to Uncle Sam.

This article first appeared in US News and World Report.

A New Law is Put To the Test

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This article ran in US News and World Report in March of 2004. You can find it online here.

The No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education-reform bill signed into law just over two years ago, takes a carrot-and-stick approach to improving school performance. But the Somers School District in northern Connecticut has been so frustrated with the stick--the labeling and sanctions (including the possibility of state takeover) faced by schools that don't meet federal standards--that last year it rejected the carrot. After Somers High School was placed on an academic watch list for what local officials consider trivial reasons (it tested 94.3 percent of its students rather than the required 95 percent), the district refused some $45,000 in No Child Left Behind money. That's only a small fraction of the system's $15 million annual budget; school leaders say the extra funds just weren't worth the hassle. "To say the money comes with strings attached is an understatement," says Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. "It comes with ropes and anchors."

Somers is one of a growing number of districts and states rebelling against the new education law, which President Bush championed with bipartisan support. The legislation requires not only annual testing but also score breakdowns by race and socioeconomic status to ensure that schoolwide averages don't mask failure for some groups. It also calls for students in failing schools to receive money for outside tutoring or to be given the option of transferring elsewhere.

Educators don't quarrel with the goal of boosting student achievement, but many resent the way the law is being implemented. Legislators in over a dozen states--including Maine, Virginia, and Washington--have passed or are considering symbolic resolutions calling for more flexibility and funding under the 700-page law. Critics, including many Republican state legislators who aren't typically at odds with the Bush administration, have a litany of objections, notably the law's heavy costs and what they view as its infringement on local control.

For its part, the Bush administration has taken steps to stop the backlash. It has eased accountability requirements for non-English-speaking and disabled students, thus lowering the number of schools that will be labeled as failing. But it has also warned states that if they drop out of the program, all of their federal education funding for disadvantaged kids--not just No Child Left Behind grants--will be cut. That could mean a revenue loss of almost 15 percent in some poorer districts.

Still, the protests are likely to continue. This year, some 6,000 schools were labeled "in need of improvement." That number could increase to 25,000, or about one third of the nation's schools, as more of the law's accountability standards kick in over the next two years. Says Diane Rentner, deputy director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy: "The big fights have yet to come."

Bulger Captured: Will Gardner Art Follow?

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James "Whitey" Bulger, the infamous Boston mobster, was arrested by the FBI on Wednesday night. He had been on the run for 16 years, despite appearing on America’s Most Wanted a dozen times with a $2 million reward for his capture.

 

But will his arrest lead to the return of the Gardner art? I don't believe Bulger has access to the Gardner art. The museum does not have any information tying him to the case either. Indeed, there aren't any concrete clues of a Bulger angle. All of Bulger’s old associates—Stevie Flemmi, Kevin Weeks, Pat Nee, John Martorano—have turned state’s witness, and not one of them had ever fingered Bulger for the museum robbery. In all of the Bulger wiretaps and court documents and surveillance records, there had never been any mention of the paintings.

 

To be sure, I imagine it's possilbe that Bulger made some phone calls after he learned of the theft and it's certainly possible that he knows--or thinks he may know--who did rob the museum. But really I think the more important take-home of this all is that publicity makes a tremendous difference, even decades after the crime was committed.

In other words, one great Boston crime mystery has been solved. If the musuem and the FBI keep up the publicity--and they been doing a great job over the past few years--there will be just one more mystery to go.

Planning a visit to the Gardner museum?

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Going to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston? Obsessed with the unsolved 1990 heist? I wrote up some advice for people who're planning to visit the museum and interested in the case:

--Start on the ground floor. Imagine it to be March 18,1990, about two in the morning. The room would be dark and shadowy. A few revelers would be out on the street, stumbling their way home. Some bats might be skittering through the museums's galleries.

--Look at this theft schematic from The Boston Globe to get a sense of how exactly the thieves moved through the building. If you're feeling particularly inspired, follow the room-by-room movements of the thieves.

--Visit the Dutch Room. Stare into the silk wallpaper behind the empty frames. Wonder about the whereabouts of the paintings. Maybe bring John Updike's poem "Stolen" and read it quietly to yourself.

--Check out the wooden cabinet near the door to the Dutch Room. Note the tiny holes on the side of the cabinet, right next to the door frame. They come from the screws that once secured the small artwork to the cabinet, and in many ways, they're all that's left of the Rembrandt self-portrait.

--Dwell on the mysteries of the case by visiting the Short Gallery. Ask yourself some of the questions that continue to haunt investigators today: Why did the thieves spend over an hour in the museum but only steal 13 items? Why did the crooks steal knickknacks like the finial from the top of the flag pole but not the near-by Michelangelo? Why did the two men never visit the third floor where the Titian hangs in all of its splendor?

--Stop in the gift shop. Notice that the museum doesn't sell my book, The Gardner Heist, or any other book or movie or artwork devoted to the theft. The museum treats the caper very seriously--they don't want to be seen as commercializing their tragic loss. And that's a good thing.

--Remember that the Gardner is an intimate, powerful museum, a space devoted to the enjoyment of art. Don't focus only on the heist; enjoy the other artworks. One of my favorites is Sargent's El Jaleo on the ground floor. Can you hear the tap-tapping of the singer's foot?

--Be respectful. The museum was the victim of a terrible crime, after all.

This item first appeared in The Open Case magazine.

How Sysco came to monopolize most of what you eat.

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A hot dog from Yankee Stadium. Potato latkes from the Four Seasons in Manhattan. Sirloin steak at Applebee's. The jumbo cheeseburger at the University of Iowa Hospital. While it would seem these menu items have nothing in common, they're all from Sysco, a Houston-based food wholesaler. This top food supplier serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy's, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford's Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant. Even Gitmo dishes out food from Sysco. Should you worry that one source dominates so much of what you eat?

Like any retailer, chefs need wholesalers that distribute goods cheaply and efficiently, and Sysco's 400,000-plus item catalog conveniently sells everything a cook needs to run an eating establishment. A little more than half of their products are brand names like Parkay and Lucky Charms. The rest are Sysco-packaged items like 25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products. Whatever a cook orders is delivered straight to the kitchen door at bottom-barrel prices: One Sysco invoice I got my hands on has a 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice selling for $20.95, or about 84 cents a pound, while a 1-pound box bought through Amazon Grocery costs $2.09.

All of that seems relatively innocuous—restaurants need to make a profit, after all. But Sysco also hawks pre-packaged food. While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like freezing and using canned goods like beans and tomatoes, it's entirely different to pass off one of Sysco's thousands of ready-made items—ground beef burritosvegan tortellini,quiche Lorraine pietiramisu cake—as homemade.

The ingredients alone on some of the pre-made items are enough to make a restaurant-goer swear off eating out. Thebreaded cheese chicken breast, for instance, contains monocalcium phosphates, sorbic acid preservatives, and oleoresin in turmeric. The Serve Smart Chicken is particularly frightening. While it looks natural, it consists of parts of other chicken breasts mashed together into a single, chicken-breastlike block. As the company notes on its Web site, our "unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost. … Available in four great flavors: teriyaki, BBQ, fajita and original." What Smart Chicken tastes like, I'd rather not know.

Restaurants make a mint from serving these pre-prepped foods, since the meals can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. A box of 36, 4-ounce chicken Kievs, for instance, can be kept in an icebox for up to 180 days. And the savings from labor costs are considerable. Each reheated Angus country fried steak will bring in almost $5 in profits. In the words of Sysco, these meals require nothing more than the ability to "heat, assemble, and serve."

It comes as little surprise that institutions like hospitals, universities, and military bases flock to Sysco's pre-cooked foods. But well-regarded bistros and pubs have also begun to offer such items to save time and money. Recently, New York magazine reported that Thomas Keller uses frozen Sysco fries at his Bouchon bistros. (While a company spokeswoman wouldn't confirm the brand, she confirmed the use of frozen fries.) Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, an upscale sports bar, serves Sysco's pre-made soups, like Manhattan clam chowder and vegetarian black bean. And then there's Edgar's restaurant at Belhurst Castle, which has won numerous awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. There, the kitchen takes Sysco's Imperial Towering Chocolate Cake out of the box, lets it defrost, and then sprinkles it with fresh raspberries before serving it to diners. "We've had a lot of success with that cake," executive chef Casey Belile says. The Edgar's menu, of course, does not list the dessert as a Sysco pre-made cake, but it does charge $8.95 for the experience.

The company has a long history of championing frozen foods. Sysco founder John Baugh has been quoted as saying, "frozen foods taste better than anything I could grow in my garden." He started the company in 1969 when he saw an opening in the food services marketplace for a large, national distributor that would beat out local competitors through its sheer size. At the time, Baugh owned a small frozen-food company in Houston, and he convinced eight other regional food distributors to join forces to form a national conglomerate. Within a year of its start, Sysco posted more than $100 million in sales, and for the next 30 years, snapped up more than 150 local food distributors, becoming the largest in the nation. The company is about 50 percent larger than its next-largest competitor and five times bigger than the third-largest player; its boxes and cans are now as common in restaurant kitchens as salt and flour. A very partial listing of its better-known customers can be found here.

Some obvious food trends have helped Sysco's rise to Wal-Mart-like dominance. In 1970, households spent 34 percent of their food budget on dining out, compared to almost 50 percent today. And as small, local farms have closed down to make way for strip malls, restaurants increasingly depend on regional and national food processors to supply them with basic ingredients. While Sysco has smartly capitalized on all of this as the middleman between individual food distributors and the kitchen door, it's also earned the ire of gourmets, who portray the company as a leviathan that destroys local economies—and good taste.

But many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia's New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible. For its part, Sysco has also been upping the quality of some of its offerings. It now distributes more locally grown meats and produce, and teams up with companies like artisanal cheesemongerMurray's to deliver specialty foods. Chef Tom Hosack of Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, buys most of his greens through Sysco, and they're almost all regionally grown.

And not every cook has the time—or the money—to spend every afternoon foraging for fresh heirloom tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Nor do they need to. Many of Sysco's products—the meat, the vegetables, the fruits—are not that different than what you'll find at your local supermarket. But no restaurant diner should pay a chef to defrost and heat. Cooks are called cooks for a reason.

This article first appeared in Slate in 2007.