Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse

Tyler Cowen asks an interesting question: “Why the low status of opposition to child abuse?” A reader speculates that, on the cultural left, “the highly visible progressive segment that drives wokeness, is culturally powerful, etc.” does not emphasize child abuse and, “while there’s nothing obviously wrong with their attention to sexual and racial discrimination, the energy put into it is disproportionate to the massive social cost of child abuse.” One possible answer to this query is that, as Cowen posits, “virtually everyone is against child abuse, so opposing it doesn’t make anyone significant look worse.” Another reader lists some reasons the political right could be quiet, and he says that “you can’t even think of a solution by reasoning from your political views.” I’d venture another component: detecting child abuse is frequently hard because it occurs inside the home and away from most eyes, plus, once it has been unambiguously detected—what then?

What’s the alternative when the family is abusive, or, more readily and frequently, borderline abusive? Many GWC readers already know that the existing foster family system (FFS) can be characterized in a variety of ways, but “harmonious, well-funded, and functional” are rarely among them. Something like “completely f-ed up” is probably more common, in candid conversation if not publicly.* Most foster “family parents” are in effect small businesses in that they receive monthly payments from the contracting foster family agency (FAA),** which are higher for higher-risk kids. With several high-risk kids in the household, monthly payments can rise into the thousands—the foster kids know this and know they are, in some respects, a commodity. Still, some foster parents are saints (if you are one or know one and you are about to leave a comment, let me say that I know there are great and loving foster families) but most are running a very small enterprise on a tight margin. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, some number of foster families are motivated by the the very unattractive, horrific, and illegal impulses that you might imagine motivate them. To counteract bad actors, one needs a whole massive bureaucratic oversight machine, which is itself expensive, invasive, and onerous—and it discourages the well-meaning people who might otherwise participate. Most of us don’t want our homes randomly invaded by snooping, judging strangers.

We’ve worked for many FFAs over the years, and every FFA has the same publicly stated goal, which is aligned with the mission of county child protective services agencies: to facilitate family reunification, whenever possible. Birth families and/or relatives have to be very bad for the kid(s) to be worse off than they are in foster care, given the well-known shortcomings of the FFS. The honest FFAs will admit as much, again off the record. For family reunification, DHHS even has an RFP on the street, “Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification.” It only has one grant available, which means it’s wired, so we’re unlikely to write one of these, though we’ve written other proposals in this genre.

It’s also important to understand that FFAs are themselves thin-margin businesses, which are often organized as nonprofits in only the most nominal of senses. The FFS in most states uses contracts with FFAs that reimburse the FFAs for the actual number and types of kids placed and the length of the placement. It is in effect a reimbursed per-capita arrangement that incentivizes the FFA to keep their census of placements as high as possible to cover fixed costs like staff and endlessly recruiting, training, and monitoring foster families. The many things that can go wrong with this structure are fairly obvious.

I have seen occasional articles like “The Best Thing About Orphanages:”

Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large “institutions” (or orphanages) and half in “community” programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

I don’t have a final answer to this issue, but orphanages have such bad PR in the United States that I doubt they’ll ever be seriously tried. Any politician who seriously proposes trying them is going to be compared to a Dickens villain and will likely be courting career suicide (on the other hand, I never thought we’d see legal marijuana, and here we are). The last major politician to make a pitch for orphanages was Newt Gingrich in 1990s, and that went nowhere (“[Gingrich] dared to suggest that some welfare children would be better off in private orphanages. In making his off-the-cuff comments, he ignited a media and policy firestorm, the general tone of which was best captured by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dubbed the idea ‘unbelievable and absurd'”). Still, given our work with FFAs, I would favor some experimentation in the direction of orphanages, as long as they were re-branded with some clever moniker (“Growth Homes?”). Having a large number of adults watching each other and the kids is probably at least not worse than the current system, although I don’t see orphanages as a panacea. There is no panacea and some problems lack solutions.

All the problems above around foster care enumerated above are only exacerbated by teenagers, who are technically legally “children” but who often have non-childish impulses, are hard to control, and often run away. Even a 13 or 14 year old boy can be six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds or more. Girls present a different set of challenges.

Ideally, most political stances come with a set of solutions, but orphanages have a bad rap, more money would help the current system without alleviating its most pressing problems, and abused kids and FFAs are not large enough interest groups for their votes to be salient to politicians. There are lots of problems that we as a society prefer to sweep under the rug and not think about—it appears, for example, that “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot.” We could fix a lot of air pollution by depreciating gasoline-powered cars, but most people would prefer to ignore the issue. Animal meat processing factories are another example: if you kick a dog in public, you might be arrested and charged with a crime, but most of us prefer to ignore the horrific things that happen in meat processing factories. Foster care is yet another area in which we hope for the best and don’t want to know too much about what’s really happening.

While I was writing the precursors to this post, I also realized something unusual about grant writing: I don’t know exactly how to describe the vantage point we have, but it’s not a common one: we’re in this purgatory that’s not where most people thinking about social science and government policy reside. We’re in an intellectual and observational place halfway between the on-the-ground implementers and the in-the-tower legislators and academics. We’re not called on to dream up new programs, ideas, problems, or data, like academics and legislators, but we’re also much closer to the problem space, while not being completely mired in immediate day-to-day experience. Because we’re at a higher level of abstraction than most implementers, we can see comparisons that on-the-ground people sometimes miss, while still seeing enough of the ground floor to have a better idea what’s going on than some academic/legislator-types do. Almost no one asks us what we’ve seen and what we can see across organization types—for example, at one point, “We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.” That essay was written in 2015 and since then, zero funders have sought feedback. I’m not sure what to do with this observation, apart from noting that we see some things other people miss.


* We learn many interesting things from clients, most of which we can’t say publicly. Silence is one of our virtues.

** You can tell that we’re dealing with government because of the number of acronyms in play.

You’d think there’s no pandemic going on: The FCC shuts down its COVID-19 Telehealth grant submission portal

One of the bigger and more interesting RFPs on the street right now is the FCC’s “COVID-19 Telehealth Program,” which has $200 million available for obvious purposes—but grants are being accepted, reviewed, and approved on a first-come, first-served basis (federal RFPs usually have a fixed due date).* Lots of FQHCs are also implementing, or trying to implement, telehealth programs on the fly, since COVID-19 has hit them with a structural double whammy: patients with COVID-19 need to be isolated as much as possible from other patients, and other patients are avoiding health clinics for fear of catching COVID-19. This has had the unexpected side effect of lowering patient volumes at FQHCs, which, like other healthcare providers, have reacted by laying off staff. You’d intuitively think that, during a pandemic, the need for healthcare staff would expand, but that’s not happened outside of NYC intensive care units.

So the FCC program is designed to help FQHCs and other providers move relatively quickly to telehealth, which may help FQHCs achieve a higher patient volume. On Saturday we were working to backcheck a client’s online FCC application, since it’s our standard practice to make sure that applications are as complete and technically accurate as possible before client upload. But when we tried to log into the FCC’s application site, we were hit by a message telling us that the FCC had closed its application portal for maintenance. Is shutting a site down for “maintenance” still necessary in 2020? The error message felt very 2003, and, as you probably know, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, when every day counts. I guess FCC didn’t get the pandemic memo.

Eventually the site came back up, but its closure seems like a metaphor for many of the challenges we, as a society, are collectively facing from bureaucrats during these strangest of times.

The FCC COVID-19 Telehealth grant program is also unusual because it specifically says that applicants can only buy Internet-connected telehealth equipment—meaning blood pressure cuffs or pulse oximeters that automatically relay information to healthcare providers. I’ve seen budgets for how much these devices cost, and they’re crazy expensive, as most medical devices are. But: did you know that something as simple as an Apple Watch can function as a pulse oximeter—except that FDA regulations are blocking this use? This is the same FDA whose regulations stopped independent labs from rolling out virus testing in February. We try not to link outrage stories here, but it’s hard to read “The Infuriating Story of How the Government Stalled Coronavirus Testing” without being justifiably outraged.

Today, pointless FDA regulations are blocking people from using a relatively cheap and widely available device from being deployed in a medical context. Apple.com lists “Series 5” Apple Watches at $399 and they’re shipping today (there’s been a pulse ox shortage). Our FQHC clients already know this, but pulse oxes are useful for determining whether a COVID-19 patient needs to be hospitalized, or needs supplemental oxygen. Most COVID-19 patients can recover on their own without medical intervention, but low blood oxygenation is a key danger metric: a normal blood oxygenation level is around 95 – 100. If a patient’s oxygenation level consistently falls below 90, that patient likely needs advanced care. Most households have a thermometer, but relatively few have pulse oxes. Many COVID-19 patients are suffering from what doctors are calling “silent hypoxia,” in which the patient is essentially suffocating but doesn’t realize they’re suffocating, and pulse ox data can tell the patient whether they need to go in to see their doc or to an ER. It would be relatively easy for Apple to allow Apple Watch users to link their health data with a healthcare provider, and for the healthcare provider go get an alert if a patient’s blood oxygenation level drops below 92 or 90. Cheap solutions exist but the FDA keeps us from implementing them.


* Other federal departments have been funding similar telehealth-related grants programs: for example, the USDA has $40 million available via the “Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants.” Those grants aren’t due until July 13, however.

First SAMHSA COVID-19 FOA out,”Emergency COVID-19,” but the deadline is April 10

With the recent passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act to provide COVID-19 relief, we’ve been closely monitoring the issuance of RFPs. On April 2, SAMHSA issued its first FOA (SAMHSA-speak for RFP) under the Act, “Emergency Grants to Address Mental and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19.” But the submission due date is April 10, which is just 8 days from the posting. This is a model for what other federal coronavirus-related RFPs will likely look like. Although the RFP length is long, most of the content is SAMHSA boilerplate, and the narrative only needs to be 10 pages. Projects are expected to start by May 31. A May 31 start date may seem slow in this time of war, but it’s incredibly fast by the standards of federal agencies.

Only states, territories, and Indian Tribes are eligible applicants. We’re pointing this program out because RFPs for which nonprofit and public agencies are eligible will likely follow in the coming days, issued from a variety of federal agencies. If you’re a nonprofit, you need to be ready to act fast. Some nonprofits aren’t poised to act. We got a query email, for example, from a nonprofit back on March 3. I sent a fee-quote letter and follow-up email that day. The nonprofit disappeared, then, on March 25, sent an email asking for a further call two to three weeks later. Six or more weeks to make a decision to apply may work in normal times, but a culture of inactivity during a crisis is a real liability.

NYT: Nonprofits should focus on grant writing, not donations, during the COVID-19 crisis

We’ve written two recent posts on the impact of COVID-19 on nonprofits, “COVID-19, donations, and foundation and government grant proposals” and “Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic.” During an economic crisis like this one, most nonprofits will probably be gob-smacked with cash flow problems, while demand for services, particularly among human services provides, skyrockets.* Since thousands of businesses are suddenly closed, millions are unemployed, and the stock market is gyrating downward, seeking donations is mostly a waste of time and it’s not possible to hold galas and fundraisers. To avoid organizational disaster, the only option for most nonprofits is to immediately conduct grant source research and start submitting foundation and government grant proposals. If the nonprofit lacks internal capacity to do this, hire a consultant like Seliger + Associates.

A recent New York Times David Streitfeld article confirms this, “A New Mission for Nonprofits During the Outbreak: Survival.” Although Streitfeld incorrectly conflates donations and grants, the articles reaffirms what we said in our posts—foundations react to economic crises, at least in the short term, by vastly increasing their grant making:

Foundations, traditionally not among the spryest of organizations, learned from 9/11 and severe hurricanes that they could move fast. They are quickly retooling to disburse emergency money and relax reporting requirements that are suddenly impossible to meet. Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and 23 other foundations as well as individual donors have created a $78 million Covid-19 rescue fund for New York City nonprofits. Grants will start going out to small and midsize social services and arts and cultural organizations on Monday. Interest-free loans will follow.

In hard-hit Seattle, the Seattle Foundation is administering a $14.3 million emergency program funded by local businesses, foundations and government. It released more than $10 million to 120 organizations this week.

These are probably not “donations,” and the nonprofits will likely have to submit proposals of some sort and, unless nonprofits are actively searching for such foundation support, most will miss out entirely. Foundation largess, however, will not last. Within a few months, the spectacular decline of their endowments will sink in and the the fire hose will be reduced to a normal flow—or even a trickle.

While the NYT piece doesn’t cover it, the same phenomenon is happening with government grants, but at a much higher level. In addition the normal billions of federal grant dollars up for grabs, billions more are included in the three COVID-19 Stimulus Bills passed so far, with Congress likely to past several more bills.

So, the time to seek foundation and government grants is now.


* Since grant writing in the time of COVID-19 is a strange experience, this is good time to read or re-read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful magical realism novel, Love in the Time of Cholera.

COVID-19, donations, and foundation and government grant proposals

We’ve been in business since 1994 and have written proposals during several economic shocks; in the Great Recession in 2009, donations to nonprofits began drying up as soon as the stock market began diving (we wrote as much at the time). A decade later, COVID-19 is sending the economy into what could be a second Great Depression. While hopefully the crash will be v-shaped, there’s no way to know when a rebound will start, since much depends on the public’s response and on the success or failure of the drugs in clinical trials.

Nonprofits, and especially human services providers, are being torn between higher service demands and evaporating revenue. Particularly hard hit are Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs); about 1,400 FQHCs deliver front line healthcare to Medicaid and other low-income patients. Total patient population estimates differ, but FQHCs may serve as many as 30 million people. FQHC CEOs have been telling us they have very limited capacity for treating infectious disease patients (no separate waiting rooms, scarce protective gear, etc.) and face staffing shortages, because clinicians staying home to watch their now out-of-school children. Some clinicians are pregnant and some are sick themselves. Inadequate testing infrastructure has been well-covered in the media by now.

Some nonprofits, like Head Start and other early childhood education providers or behavioral health service providers, face the same grim reality, as their centers are closed and third-party payments become delayed or non-existent. For other nonprofits that depend on donations, fundraisers, and/or membership dues (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, museums, performing arts, etc.) are likely even worse off. John Macintosh just wrote in the NYT that COVID-19 could mean extinction for many nonprofits. But this extinction can be averted—and will be by nimble nonprofits.

For the short term, nonprofits should stop or reduce screaming empty bowl-in-hand emails and mailers for donations. With the stock market in free-fall and unemployment probably already 10% and on a path to 20% *barring a sudden drug trial that works), seeking donations is delusional. When businesses, small and large, suddenly have zero revenue, millions are being laid off, and 401Ks being decimated, donations will quickly decline, no matter how good the cause or the relationship with the donor. Also, there’ll be no galas, art auctions, and other fundraisers for who knows how long.

The only real option for most nonprofits is to quickly ramp-up grant seeking and grant writing. As has been the case in previous economic crises, the federal response will likely be to dump money into grant programs and issue RFPs. In addition to already authorized FY ’20 federal funding for grant programs, by this week Congress will have passed three huge COVID-19 stimulus bills totally close to $2 trillion—dwarfing the 2009 Stimulus Bill. These bills will have a lot extra money for existing programs, as well as for a flock of new grant programs.* We saw this in 2009, when we wrote proposals for all kinds of oddball programs and projects, and this will unfold again with astonishing speed. Federal agencies will approve grant proposals much faster than usual—like most Americans, the federal bureaucracy rises from its normal stupor to meet extreme challenges. But RFPs are likely to have very short deadlines. Nonprofits that start preparing for intense grant writing will be more likely to succeed.

Most foundations, meanwhile, respond to crises like this by quickly increasing the amount of funds available from their endowments and speeding up their normal approval processes, both to address issues related to the crisis, as well as to keep essential nonprofits operating. In addition to emergency operating support, foundations will be very interested in project concepts relating to primary care access, public health education and outreach, telehealth, and behavioral health. But this foundation response won’t last more than about six months. At some point, they’ll turn off the spigot, either because their endowments will have been depleted too much or the crisis will have passed.

Even nonprofit royalty, which usually don’t sully their hands will grant writing, unless the grants are wired, know that reality has changed.** You may have read, “Met Museum Prepares for $100 Million Loss and Closure Till July.” The author reports that the Met will be “fundraising from foundations and pursuing government grants.” If the Met is turning to grant writing, so should your nonprofit and the sooner the better.

Want to talk about how Seliger + Associates can help? Give us a call at 800.540.8906 ext.1. By the time you read this, your organization’s leadership will probably already be convening meetings about what to do next.


* Extraneous program authorizations in federal spending bills are common and referred to as “ornaments.”

** As Bob Dylan put it in Things Have Changed, “People are crazy and times have changed.”

Less obvious things that impact human services during the coronavirus pandemic

The news about coronavirus focuses rightly on life and death and the struggles of hospitals, as well the need for social distancing and the suspensions of large gatherings. Emergency measures that last for a few weeks are one thing, but it looks like this crisis may continue for several months. While the media is generally doing a good job of crisis coverage, some aspects of particular interest to nonprofit human services providers are being narrowly covered at best.

For example, arrests by the LAPD are dropping, and many court systems are deferring or dismissing non-felony cases, since no one wants coronavirus to rip through jails. It’s hard to say what lowered policing and low-level case dismissal means: maybe many arrests were bogus in the first place. But maybe they weren’t, and we’re likely going to see substantially increased crime as people adjust to this new normal—most big city cops aren’t arresting people, even for such fairly serious crimes as burglary and car break-ins. It’s also possible that petty crime—and even crime in general—will decline because would-be criminals are at home and either don’t want to get coronavirus themselves, or they know most people are holed up at home, and many of those holed up at home are armed. It’s beyond the purview of our knowledge and subject matter to discuss this in detail, but there’s also a lively debate about whether most crime is premeditated versus simply persons seeing what they perceive as opportunity and then acting on it.

Some incarcerated persons are already being released early; released arrestees and, more importantly, recently released prisoners need something productive to do and to earn legitimate income—which usually means case-managed job training and placement of some kind. We’ve written many funded proposals for services for ex-offenders and, even in good times, this is not an easy population to work with. The unemployment rate is likely 10% and may spike as high as 20% in the coming months, further complicating matters. In the short term, however, there’ll be huge need, and likely lots of grant money available, to provide these services. Training and placement, alway challenging, will be hard, given social distancing, but some nonprofits have to try, perhaps with sufficient social distancing measure and/or tele-case management.

Another issue: thousands of 12-Step Program meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are being cancelled—and these programs are based mostly on in-person peer support. Behavioral health provides will have to suspend in-person individual and group sessions, leaving millions more with SUD/OUD and/or severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI) more or less on their own. Add the incredible stressors of job/income loss, stay-at-home orders, and the like to addiction and mental health issues, and a huge human toll is likely. We’ve seen estimates that 10% of the US population has mental health or substance abuse challenges that are mitigated by in-person support. Most people don’t get the same effects from digital communications tools that we do from in-person interaction. Still, this is an opportunity for nimble nonprofits to seek foundation and government grants to establish or scale-up tele-behavioral health services.

Lots of people have realized that shuttered movie theaters may never recover; fewer people are thinking openly about what we ought to be doing with the most vulnerable persons who are facing serious disruptions, on top of the obvious coronavirus disruptions.

Links: Opioids treatment, unglamorous but important bureaucracy, Pre-K for All, and more!

* “‘Pure incompetence:’ As fatal heroin overdoses exploded in black neighborhoods, D.C. officials ignored life-saving strategies and misspent millions of federal grant dollars. More than 800 deaths later, the city is still reckoning with the damage it failed to prevent.” If your organization is working on the opioid crisis, you should give us a call, because there’s a huge amount of federal, state, and local funding for it. Rural areas are seeing and especially large burst of funding.

* “The Tragedy of Germany’s Energy Experiment: The country is moving beyond nuclear power. But at what cost?”

* America’s National Climate Strategy Starts with NEPA. Unglamorous but important.

* Officials want to clear a mile-long homeless camp on a Sonoma County bike trail. Some don’t want to go. We’re guessing that those who don’t want it to go also don’t use the bike trail or live near it.

* The hottest new thing in sustainable building is, uh, wood. If you’re doing construction-related job training, mention cross-laminated timber (CLT) in your next proposal.

* On the Chinese education system and philosophy. It’s nearly the opposite of what programs like Pre-K For All or Early Head Start attempt to do. I wonder how well it works, although that will be hard to say, since it probably takes 40 or 50 years to properly evaluate how an early childhood education program “works,” by which point the entire cultural, social, and technological environment will have changed.

* For another perspective, read me on Bringing Up Bébé, an essay that is sure to be of interest to anyone providing early childhood education services like Pre-K For All or Head Start. We collectively ought to spend more time looking at early childhood from a cross-cultural perspective and less time on making early childhood “academic.” Life is not a race. France and China seem different in key ways but surprisingly similar in some.

* “Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy.” Donations by rich people are better than not, and criticism is misguided. Foundations offer flexibility that government funding typically does not.

* “Let’s quit fetishizing the single-family home.” This would also make programs like YouthBuild work more effectively: zoning restrictions are now one of the biggest problems with any job-training program that includes a construction training element. Many of today’s challenges are really housing and healthcare policy challenges, with powerful incumbents blocking change and the powerful need for change building up.

* “The Age of Decadence: Cut the drama. The real story of the West in the 21st century is one of stalemate and stagnation.” An interesting thesis, but not necessarily one that I buy.

* Was the nuclear family a mistake?.

* How we write scientific and technical grants.

Community foundations and grants that are more work than they’re worth

We get calls from some (inexperienced) potential clients who want to pursue “community foundation” grants, which are usually small grants that range up to $5,000 or $10,000, but we almost always tell them the same thing: those grants aren’t worth chasing. We’ve mentioned that, in grant writing, zeroes are cheap, and many very large grants aren’t much harder to get, and to manage, than smaller grants.

Something unusual, however, just happened: We got a phone call from a community foundation CEO who is unhappy because he’s finding small grants harder and harder to give away. It seems that this community foundation offers free grant writing training to local nonprofit leaders in hopes of helping them understand how to write proposals, but the nonprofit executive directors still can’t be bothered to fill out the foundation’s relatively simple applications for the small grants it offers. The foundation is trying to get the local nonprofits to seek funding from it, but they won’t, because of the problems I mention in the first paragraph. While we love work, there’s nothing we could do for this foundation to solve this problem—we said him that the foundation should make the grants larger and they’ll get more applications. Alternatively, just give the money away without an application.

We also got a recent call from a client who is now turning down these kinds of smaller grants. Why would an organization turn down money? Because, the client said, by the time the she applies, deals with the bureaucracy, gets the money, and accounts for the money, there is little or no real money left to provide services—it’s all gone into administration. Dedicating management resources for $500,000 or million-dollar grants makes sense. Dedicating management resources for $5,000 grants doesn’t.*

Community foundations that want to make an impact are better off just sending the check to the nonprofits they already like without requiring an application. Or, they could invite nonprofits to submit applications they’re already submitting. For example, we recently worked on a SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework – Partnerships for Success (SPF-PFS) application; a community foundation interested in opioid use disorder (OUD) prevention and treatment could say to a local nonprofit, “If you’re already applying for a grant and send it to us, we’ll review it too, just using our own criteria.” Emailing a copy of an existing grant is easy—it would be something like the college Common Application in college admissions, but for grants. As far as I can remember, we’ve never seen a foundation do this.

I feel bad for community foundations that are trying to give away money unsuccessfully—but there is (rarely) such thing as a free lunch, and nonprofits know that friction costs are real.


* As Isaac relates in the very first post we put up, back in 2007, the first grant proposal he wrote in 1972 was for $5,000. That made sense then, as $5K was real money in 1972, but it’s not any more.

More experiments in education and job training: Shopify’s “Dev Degree”

Lots of us know that traditional education providers offer various kinds of on-the-job training, work experience, internships, and similar arrangements with employers; in typical arrangements, someone who primarily identifies as a student also does some work, often paid but sometimes not, to get some real-world experience. But what happens if you try going the other way around?

You may have read the preceding sentence a couple of times, trying to understand what it means. Shopify, the ecommerce platform, is now offering something called “Dev Degree,” which is described as “a 4-year, work-integrated learning program that combines hands-on developer experience at Shopify with an accredited Computer Science degree from either Carleton University or York University.” On Twitter, one of Shopify’s VP’s said that “We pay tuition & salary, ~$160k over 4 yrs”—so instead of student loans, the student, or “student,” comes out net positive. Instead of identifying as someone who is primarily a student but does a little work experience, a person presumably identifies primarily as a worker but does some schooling too.

As often happens, the old is becoming new again. Before lawyers enacted occupational licensing restrictions to raise their wages, most proto-lawyers just studied under senior lawyers using an apprenticeship model. When the proto-lawyer could pass the bar and convince clients to give him money, he was a lawyer—one who’d learned on the job. Think of Abe Lincoln, who become something greater than a passable country lawyer.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Lambda School, Make School, and now Shopify School (okay, it’s not technically called that) are concentrated in tech and programming, where an extreme shortage of qualified candidates seems to intersect with extremely high demand for qualified candidates. The New York Times and Economist aren’t proposing ways to more quickly and cheaply turn English majors into journalists, because there are plenty of English majors and few journalism jobs. But these experiments in alternative education are interesting because they speak to the relentlessly rising cost of conventional education combined with onerous student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy (the infamous 2005 bankruptcy “reform” act made student loans almost impossible to discharge). If there’s enough pressure on a system, the system starts to react, and Dev Degree is another example of the reaction.

We’ve been covering the “alternative education” beat in various places for a lot of reasons, one being that we do a lot of work for colleges and universities. Another is in the fact that I’ve spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower, where I’ve witnessed some insalubrious, unsavory practices and behaviors. Another is that we’ve had an uptick in stories from nonprofit clients and potential clients about their clients or participants who have relatively small amounts of student loan debt, often in the $1,000 to $4,000 range, but that the participant can’t pay off. So the participant starts school, quits or otherwise can’t finish, and then drags around this mounting debt while making minimum wage or close to it.

Yet another way to cover these stories is the potential for these kinds of systems to be applied in other fields, like healthcare tech, truck driving, and the like. Most government-sponsored job training programs focus on these kinds of fields, and they haven’t been apprentice-ized yet. But the right nonprofit or business might come along and make it so. We want to encourage change and innovation in this sector, and we know some of our clients will make change happen.

Doing business with public agencies in Texas versus California (or New York)

We’re working on a project for a large public agency in Texas, and, like most large public agencies, it has standard vendor signup forms. We’ve also worked for many public agencies in states like California and New York, which are infamous for being unfriendly to business—and, in this instance, the rumors are true. The differences in required vendor forms might be a microcosm for larger differences between California (or New York) and Texas. The Texas public agency has a short, simple vendor form with no attachments other than a W-9.

California and New York public agencies, however, typically have long and onerous forms and processes so complex that sometimes we turn down the assignment. They often require a “temporary” local business license, even thought the assignment will likely be completed in less than six weeks and we’ll never set foot in the jurisdiction; proof of worker’s comp, liability, errors and commissions and even car insurance (all of which we have, but insurance certificates are a pain to produce and may not match the agency’s strict rules); and oddball by-jurisdiction forms that have little or nothing to do with grant writing. The City of Los Angeles, for example, requires forms certifying that Seliger + Associates did not benefit from slavery (for those of you keeping score at home, slavery ended in all U.S. states in 1865, and Seliger + Associates was founded in 1993). Another example, when working for the City of Richmond in California: we have to provide four wet-signed notarized copies of the contract (party like its 1979).

The costs of complying with random forms and local regulations are rarely discussed—but they’re very real and often high. Such requirements even drive up the cost of childcare, in ways that are often invisible to the entities imposing the requirements. Since we work nationally, and sometimes internationally, we’re accustomed to the challenges, but states and municipalities reveal much about themselves even in small ways.