"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: November 2011

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Funding your American Education

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi
 
The questions that my last week’s write-up on American education provoked from readers can be thematized into two: questions that sought information on how to finance one’s education in America and questions about whether holders of the Juris Doctor (JD) degree can prefix the title “Dr.” to their names. I will respond to the first set of questions this week and the second set next week.

Let me start with how to finance undergraduate education in America.  American citizens and legal permanent residents (“Green Card” holders are classified as “legal permanent residents”) have a variety of options to fund their education. But I will talk about three here.  

People from well-heeled homes, of course, directly pay their tuition fees. That's the first option. But such people are in the minority. University education in the United States is inordinately pricey. For example, it costs $$39,849 (that is, about 6.3 million naira) a year to attend Harvard University. (Yale University, another Ivy League university in the league of Harvard, costs over $40,000). 

Good public universities (that is, universities owned by state governments; there are no federal universities in America) charge between $27,000 and $30,000 (that is, between 4.4 million naira and 4.7 million naira) in tuition per year. Low-end public universities could charge as low as $10,902(about 1.7 million) in tuition per annum.  Note that these figures exclude accommodation and living expenses.

As you can probably guess, more than 70 percent of Americans who attend private and public universities don’t pay tuition fees directly from their pockets. Many fund their education through financial aid and student loans from their government. No application is turned down. The loans are repaid piecemeal once students graduate and have a job.  

Another popular source of funding for undergraduate education is merit- and need-based scholarships. In the state of Georgia, for instance, they have what’s called HOPE Scholarship (HOPE stands for “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) that pays most of the tuition fees for students who have a B average in their high school GPA and maintain same throughout their undergraduate education. Students who drop below a B average will be excluded from benefiting from the scholarship. Unlike financial aid or student loans, it is free and not repayable upon graduation. 

Almost every state in the United States has the equivalent of this program. Of course, to be a beneficiary, you not only have to be an American citizen or a legal permanent resident, you also have to be a state “resident,” which means you or your parents have to have lived and paid taxes in the state for at least one year prior to enrolling in a university located in the state.

As it should be obvious by now, non-Americans have few, if any, options to finance their education outside of paying directly from their pockets. But that’s for undergraduate education. Graduate education is an entirely different ball game.

In America, very few people use their personal funds to finance their graduate education. This fact is as true for American citizens and legal permanent residents as it is for non-Americans. Graduate education is funded, for the most part, by universities. The exceptions are professional degrees like MBA, JD, MD (Doctor of Medicine), etc.; students enrolled in these degrees must either pay their way or get student loans. (President Obama finished paying off his student loans for his JD and bachelor’s degrees only in 2007, that is, 24 years after his bachelor’s degree, 16 years after his law degree, and one year before he became president!)

Most universities here hardly admit students into their academic master’s and Ph.D. programs if they have no resources to finance them. That’s why admission to graduate studies is very competitive and why not every qualified applicant gets accepted. Compare that to the UK where almost anyone with a bachelor’s degree, any bachelor’s degree, AND the capacity to pay steep tuition fees is admitted to graduate programs. I am not saying this to disparage UK graduate education. I only want to point out that private and public universities in America (NOT for-profit American universities, mind you) don’t expect people to fund their graduate education. This used to be the case even in the UK until the 1970s. (Note that it is harder to get funded for a master's program than it is for PhD program).

OK, there are basically three sources of funding for graduate education here. The first is graduate teaching assistantship. It is awarded to applicants who have high GRE scores, an impressive undergraduate GPA, relevant work history, and capacity to teach. People awarded graduate assistantships often teach lower-level undergraduate courses under the supervision of a senior professor. For their work, their tuition fee (which runs into thousands of dollars, that is, millions of naira) is waived. In addition, they get a monthly stipend (which adds up to a decent amount when converted into naira) to help with living expenses. (Monthly stipends for teaching and other kinds of assistantships are often sufficient to support just one person. If you want to bring your family, you have to look for additional support.)

Most Ph.D. programs, in fact, require that doctoral students teach undergraduate students in the course of their studies.

People who have no capacity to teach but who have great potential to succeed in graduate studies are granted research assistantships--if they qualify. This requires the beneficiaries to assist professors with their research in exchange for a full or partial tuition waiver and a monthly stipend. The funding for the research assistantship can either come directly from the department where a student is enrolled or from a generous research grant won by a professor. Research assistantships are more common in the physical sciences than they are in the social sciences and the humanities.

The third source of funding for graduate education, especially for doctoral studies, is fellowships. A fellowship is money granted by a university or a foundation or other agency to support advanced study or research. (Note that not all universities have fellowships). Prospective graduate students competitively apply for a limited number of fellowships each year, and they are often awarded to applicants with high GRE scores, excellent undergraduate or graduate GPA, compelling research proposals, etc. 

Fellowships pay for the entire cost of students’ graduate education plus a generous monthly stipend. Best of all: beneficiaries are not required to do anything in exchange for the tuition waiver and stipend—unlike teaching and research assistantships. They only need to be “in good standing,” which means they must never fall below a B average in the course of their doctoral coursework. (This is true, by the way, for all graduate students in all American universities, whether or not they receive financial support from their schools).

How do you know which type of funding to apply for? Well, the answer is simple: check the websites of the universities you are applying to. They usually list the kinds of funding they have available for students, including non-American students. Applicants wishing to be considered for financial support are usually required to apply early. So check the deadlines and send inquiries to graduate program coordinators.

I hope my readers find this helpful.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Studying in America: What You Need to Know

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi
 
In the last few days, I have received scores of inquiries from parents and prospective students about studying in America. Because I can’t respond to all the queries individually, I have decided to revise and republish an article I wrote on this subject on May 20, 2006. Hope you find it helpful.

The American educational system is driven by standardized tests. For students wishing to undertake graduate studies in the United States, the standardized test that all universities in the United States require from all students—whether they are American or international students— in most disciplines in the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences is the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Their website address can be found here

Students seeking to enroll into MBA and other management-related programs are required to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Check their site here to register for the test. If you want to study medicine (you must have a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to medical schools here) you must take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

 To study law (you must also have a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to read law) you must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and the web address of the body that administers it is can be found here. Note that the LSAT is required only for people wishing to study for a JD (Juris Doctor), which is the qualification needed to practice law in the United States. (Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have JDs). People wishing to study for the LLM degree (i.e., Master of Laws) need not take the LSAT. While the JD is a three-year program, the LLM is a one-year program. Note, too, that the LLM does not qualify you to practice law in the United States and Canada.

(To study for an undergraduate degree, you must either take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which can be found here or the American College Testing (ACT), which can be found here.

Most American universities also require candidates whose native language is not English to take the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL). See the site here. Some other schools, however, waive this requirement for Nigeria (and other Anglophone countries) where English is the language of instruction at all levels of education.

 TOEFL scores are valid for two years while GRE score are valid five years, which means you can use the test scores to apply for admission more than once. It is unusual for any university to waive the GRE requirement for anybody, although there a few that do that. For more information on standardized tests for graduate school in the United States, go to www.ets.org.

So what is GRE? It is basically an exam that tests prospective graduate students’ preparedness for graduate studies in the United States. It has three segments. The first segment tests students’ familiarity with verbal reasoning. You need to have an impressive reservoir of intellectually fashionably vocabulary to be successful in this section. The second section is the nightmare of numerophobic journalists like me: quantitative reasoning. As the name suggests, it tests students’ skills in mathematics. (A great and FREE website to help people prepare for the verbal and quantitative portions of the test is www.number2.com).
 The third segment tests students’ skills in analytical reasoning and writing. Here, test takers are given two tasks: to critique the logical inadequacies of an essay and to write a logically coherent and conceptual response to a subject-matter that will be presented during the test.

The verbal and quantitative sections are worth 800 points each, and are usually combined. The analytical writing segment is a stand-alone section. Different schools have different cut-off points for entry into their programs. However, the minimum requirement to be admitted into graduate programs here is a combined score of 1000 in the verbal and quantitative sections of the test. Competitive programs have higher requirements.

The analytical writing segment is graded differently. The lowest point a candidate can get is 1.0 and the highest grade is 6.0. Most schools require at least a 4.0 score in the segment to consider a candidate for admission, especially in the humanities and the social sciences.

Where do you take these tests in Nigeria? The best place to find out is the American Embassy in Nigeria. But I took mine with a company called Touché Nigeria Limited. It used to be in Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Abuja. I hear it’s no longer there. But the website addresses I provided above do a good job of identifying their legitimate country representatives.

After taking the tests, the next thing to do is to apply to the program you want. Fortunately, all universities now accept online applications. However, unlike in our system, American universities require applicants to pay application fees. This can be as low as $30 and as high as $150. Payment of the application fee does not guarantee admission, but it must be paid before a candidate’s file can be acted upon. The fee is used to process candidates’ application.

American universities also require applicants to submit what is called the statement of purpose. It is a personal essay that outlines the candidate’s reasons for applying to the program—his research goals, his professional aspirations, why he chose the school and the program to which he is applying, and what he expects to achieve with the degree he hopes to acquire.
Parts of Kennesaw State University campus
 Doctoral programs require students to identify professors they want to work with, and give reasons why the professors are the best people to provide mentorship to the prospective students’ research. (Americans use “dissertation” for the doctoral treatise and “thesis” for master’s treatise; they reverse our—that is, British—usage of these terms).

Another important requirement for acceptance into graduate programs here is the reference or recommendation letter from people, usually your former university teachers, who are capable of commenting on your academic and professional preparation for your proposed course of study.
So don’t burn your bridges with your teachers just yet! Their opinions are respected in the admission process here. If you did burn your bridges, go repair them.

An area of the requirement for admission that usually presents problems for Nigerians is the Grade Point Aggregate. Because we use the British grading system, most American universities are not usually impressed with our transcripts. As I said in an earlier write-up, in the American system, A starts from 90 to 100; B from 80 to 89; C from 70 to 79; D from 60 to 69; and F from 0 to 59.

This means that even our First Class degree can look like a “C” average here—that is, just a step away from the bottom. However, things are improving now. Most universities now use the services of educational experts who help institutions compare and contrast transcripts across the different educational systems of the world. (The World Evaluation Service is America's biggest credential evaluation service, and many prospective international students wishing to study in the US and Canada send their transcripts their for evaluation--for a fee. You may send yours their, too)

The other good news is that in arriving at a decision whether or not to admit a student into a graduate program, most American universities look at the whole picture: GRE scores, GPA, recommendation letters, and statements of purpose. A weakness in one area can be offset by a strength in another. Admission decisions are purely merit-driven and can’t be influenced.

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Funding Your American Education




Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where is the Fuel Subsidy?


By Moses E. Ochonu

I endorse all that Farooq Kperogi has written on the fuel subsidy debate. Even if it doesn’t sway a government in search of novel ways of inflicting economic pain on its citizens, it will have exposed the grand rip-off that is the “subsidy” regime.

I want to take Kperogi’s excellent analysis in a new polemical direction by questioning the taken-for-granted truth of subsidy. Fuel subsidy is an elaborate fiction that needs to be deconstructed. Much of the public debate on “subsidy removal” has proceeded from a problematic premise that there is a massive and growing government subsidy on fuel that enables Nigerians to access the product cheaply while threatening to bankrupt the state. We are told that to avoid this impending bankruptcy, subsidy must be removed.

With the exception of Professor Tam David West and a few other commentators, those who have challenged the government’s “subsidy removal” plans in the public square have conceded this crucial premise by either declaring their agreement with it or skirting it. This error has enabled the government to escalate its alarmism on a coming financial Armageddon. The strategy has been to spook and blackmail unsuspecting Nigerians into submission to the government’s case. The first stage of this persuasive endeavor is to get Nigerians to accept the myth of an unsustainable government spending on subsidizing cheap fuel for Nigerians.

Fuel is neither cheap nor subsidized in Nigeria. And it is not fuel subsidy that is threatening our economy. To begin with, the official diagnosis of our troubled economy, issued by the government’s economic voice, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, contradicts the argument that fuel subsidy is the cause of the government’s financial troubles.  Iweala announced with fanfare recently that the culprit in Nigeria’s financial and infrastructural woes was recurrent spending, which she put at an astronomical 75 percent of revenues.

She was referring to the cost of maintaining the government—salaries, services, and supplies. The biggest chunk of this cost comes from funding the highest-in-the-world salaries and perks of elected and appointed public officials. This is unsustainable, Iweala argued, as it sucks up resources that should go to investments in education, healthcare, roads, and electricity. She vowed to push for a reduction of this figure by 5 percent. This was a paltry ambition on her part, but we applauded her for correctly identifying the source of Nigeria’s financial and infrastructural predicament.

The government cannot have it both ways. It cannot claim that the enemy is government’s bloated recurrent spending and that its reduction holds the key to avoiding bankruptcy and then turn around to cast the blame on so-called fuel subsidy. It is possible that both factors are a drag on our fiscal wellbeing. But why target the price of fuel, which is a strategic national product that has a bearing on the livelihood of all Nigerians while effectively sparing the luxuries of a government incapable of fulfilling even the most rudimentary obligation of governance: public safety? Why seek a solution to our financial trouble that will further decimate the masses while protecting the perks of a tiny political class?

Even posing the above questions concedes too much. For the more pertinent question is: what and where is the subsidy? We must be clear about what the government is subsidizing. It is not subsidizing cheap fuel for Nigerians. It is subsidizing the unmitigated greed of the fuel importation cartel and their friends in high government places.

The government is routinely overbilled for fuel imports, as the scandalous $100 million Trafigura overbilling scandal clearly illustrates. The fuel importers have Nigeria by the jugular. Already rendered incapable of confronting this powerful cartel by its own entanglements, and unwilling to risk an economy starved of imported fuel, the Jonathan administration is doomed to pay whatever fictitious claims the fuel importers submit. With no regulatory oversight over fuel importation and no independent review of importation claims payments, the importers have been having a bazaar at the expense of Nigeria. They can bill Nigeria many times over their actual expenses and pad their invoices with scandalous margins of profit and Nigeria will pay, as long as importation remains our formula for meeting domestic fuel consumption.

Whatever subsidy exists then is not subsidy qua subsidy. It is largely a windfall payment to fuel importers. These payments subsidize the insane profits of the fuel importers and are thus not the main reason why fuel is priced at 65 naira a liter. To call the payments subsidy is to engage in mythmaking of the most callous kind. Unless we separate the legitimate costs of importation from the massively inflated costs and then adjust for the abysmal quality of the fuel dumped on Nigerians, any talk of subsidy is deception on a grand scale.

If the government actually subsidized fuel, if true subsidy existed, Nigerians would not be paying 65 naira for a liter of petrol. We would be paying much less than 65 naira, which, as Kperogi has demonstrated, is the highest among the oil-producingcountries.

The government’s deceptive narrative suggests that once “subsidy” is “removed,” and the fuel industry is “deregulated” this would be the end of the matter and we would not have to deal with the issue again as the price of fuel would be dictated by the forces of demand and supply. There are several fallacies in this claim. The first one is that we have heard the same canard many times over the years only for the government to speak glibly a few years down the road about the crippling fiscal effects of subsidy and the need to once again “remove” it.

Here is why “fuel subsidy” keeps reemerging. Once the government transfers the dubious, unconscionably inflated costs of importing fuel into the country (aka subsidy) to Nigerians, there is no reason why the importers would not inflate their costs and expenses five years from now, especially since they know that, in the absence of a robust domestic refining capacity, the government has no choice but to pay up.  In fact, with successive governments being so quick to agree to their fraudulent financial claims, there is a lot of incentive for the importers to keep increasing their profit margins through claims inflation. The importers and their friends in government have been perpetrating this “fuel subsidy” scam on us for many years. This is the secret of our five-yearly debate on “fuel subsidy.”

 Deregulation is several myths rolled into one. Government spokespeople claim that deregulation would actually reduce the price of fuel. First, despite multiple “deregulations” in the past, the price of fuel in Nigeria has never fluctuated downwards as it sometimes does in the United States. What this says is that deregulation without domestic refining, deregulation in the context of an oligopoly of fuel importers, will not drive competition and downward price fluctuation. This is elementary economic logic.

Second, deregulation by itself has never determined the price of fuel. In the United States where I live, the fuel market is “deregulated.” Yet, as many experts agree, speculative activity in the oil futures market, much of it bordering on illegality, contributes as much to pricing as the mythical forces of demand and supply.

All of this brings us back to the underlying issue: the lack of domestic refining capacity, which is the reason fuel importers and their champions in government have constituted themselves into a class of permanent economic blackmailers who thrive on the myth of subsidy.

The stubborn question is: why should we spend trillions of naira paying the fraudulent and non-existent claims of fuel importers when we can solve the problem at its root by investing that money in the building and refurbishing of refineries? That’s the only way we can eliminate the many costs associated with fuel importation and banish the fiction of fuel subsidy forever.

Dr. Ochonu is an Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, USA, and can be contacted at meochonu@gmail.com

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Biggest Scandal in Oil “Subsidy Removal” Fraud

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter:@farooqkperogi
 
To begin with, the idea that the Nigerian government is subsidizing fuel for the masses is a willfully double-tongued twaddle. Only four kinds of people believe that: the hopelessly ignorant, the mentally subnormal, masochists with a perverse thirst for self-abasement, and beneficiaries of real government subsidies such as our indolent, unproductive, and ruthlessly acquisitive government officials and their equally debauched cronies in the private sector. Many informed commentators have conclusively proved that.

But there is an even more treacherous scandal in this “oil subsidy” scam that the Nigerian national media is either not aware of or has chosen to ignore.

Two weeks ago, when I compared fuel prices among oil-producing nations of the world and showed that Nigerians pay the highest price for petrol even though they receive the lowest minimum wage among their peers, I actually did a gross disservice to my argument. The situation is a lot worse than that. I will come back to this point shortly.

 I pointed out that the petrol I use for my car in America burns A LOT SLOWER than the one I use when I visit Nigeria, meaning that, at the current rate, Nigerians (with a miserable minimum wage of N7,000 per month or about $45 per month— against America’s over N180,000 minimum wage per month) actually pay more than or about equal to Americans for petrol. It takes a remarkably heartless person to ignore this heartrending fact. But that’s an issue for another day.

A Nigerian online citizen investigator who goes by the handle “Viscount” revealed on a Nigerian Internet discussion forum recently that Nigerians not only pay the highest price for fuel in OPEC; they also consume the worst imaginable grade of petrol among oil-producing countries. That means comparing fuel prices between Nigeria and other oil-producing countries—or even countries in Europe and North America— is actually like comparing apples and oranges. 

These countries not only pay considerably lower prices than us for high-quality petrol, Nigerians have been paying unconscionably high prices for toxic fuel for the past 12 years, as you will see shortly. And they will pay even more for it next year. If this is not sufficient reason to give up everything and “occupy” Nigeria until the oppressors are brought to a standstill, I don’t know what is.

At the center of the tragic importation of toxic petroleum products into Nigeria—and other West African nations— is an Amsterdam-based multinational company called Trafigura. Keep that name in mind as you read this.

Many Nigerians know that the fuel they consume domestically isn’t derived from the crude oil their country exports. They also know that they have one of the world’s best and finest quality of crude oil. What many of them don’t know is that the cabal of rapacious oil importers that the Jonathan administration—and the administrations that preceded him—mollycoddle with “subsidies” actually import toxic, low-quality oil that is not fit for consumption in Europe or North America—or in any society that cares for the welfare of its citizens. 

In 2010, a group of journalists from the UK, Norway, and the Netherlands won a prestigious international journalism award for a series of investigative reports they did on Trafigura’s barbarous dumping of toxic petroleum waste on Cote d’Ivoire. The waste killed scores of people and sickened thousands more. In July 2010, an Amsterdam court found the company guilty and fined it 1 million euros. (The caustic petroleum residues were dumped on Cote d’Ivoire on July 2, 2006). 

On June 24 this year, Afrol News, an Africa-centered news agency, reported that it had been “given documentation” that shows that the same Trafigura that was fined for dumping deleterious waste on Ivoirians had offloaded “dangerous and poor gasoline [i.e., petrol]” in the “Nigerian port of Lagos.” This toxic petrol, which Nigerians have been consuming for years and which our governments “subsidize,” according to the Afrol News report, “is highly unstable, not enduring sunlight exposure, and will cause damage to vehicles. It will also cause environmental damages due to high sulphur values, and can therefore cause human health damages. The product is strictly illegal in Europe and the US, but may in some cases be within legal quality and environment standards in some West African countries.”
But this wasn't a one-off occurrence. It's been happening for over a decade. So, ordinary Nigerians are being forced to use their hard-earned money to buy inordinately overpriced and demonstrably harmful petroleum products. Yet the Nigerian government says this isn’t bad enough; it wants to increase fuel prices again next year. And the government has no plans to repair our refineries so that we can refine our own crude domestically and bring down the cost of petrol. 

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But the bigger scandal is that in January this year, the Jonathan administration signed a multi-billion-dollar annual contract with the same Trafigura of toxic fuel dumping infamy. And there was no due process in the award of the contract. According to Business Day of January 4, 2011, “Under the agreement with the Nigerian government, Trafigura is expected to pick up Nigerian crude oil and in return, supply her with refined products; but it is unclear why the firm, which has supplied refined products to Nigeria in the last 12 years, was favoured for the deal.

“Trafigura agreed to an annual contract with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on the basis of taking 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day in exchange for refined products such as gasoline and gas oil of equivalent value estimated at around $3 billion a year.”

An oil industry expert who spoke to Business Day said just “$1 billion of the amount would have put the four refineries in proper shape.” When I wrote two weeks ago that Nigerians were faced with a choice between death and life, I didn’t even know about all these.

I am going to leave the reader with “Viscount”’s parting thoughts:

“Nigeria will give Trafigura (confirmed supplier of bad petrol), 60, 000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for their mega tonnes of DEADLY-sulphurous petrol! Yep, Jonathan's government is paying a foreign company to systematically KILL Nigerians. And poor Nigerians are being asked to be happy jare!

“So, Nigerians, when your brand new Tokunbo engine knocks - just like that, thank Trafigura! When your I-better-pass-my-neighbour generator's fume smells funny and leaves a film like Casper the Ghost - just like that, thank Trafigura! When you are walking in Lagos, or any other Nigerian [city], and you are experiencing a choking sensation from the mundane act of breathing in - just like that, thank Trafigura! Nigeria!”

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