Student debt, healthcare, canceled flights : The Indicator from Planet Money : NPR






I’m Wailin Wong. And today, our colleague from Planet Money is joining us. Welcome, Amanda Aronczyk.


MA: Amanda, you’re here because it’s Friday, which means it’s time to do indicators of the week.

WONG: Today, we’re going to be talking about new solutions to ongoing problems – problems like the cost of higher education and health care. And an airline story of woe that hits close to home.

ARONCZYK: Oh, I have so much to say about airlines. Our indicator solutions coming up after the break.


MA: All right. To kick it off, I’m going to start off with a problem that a lot of people are probably familiar with, especially after this week – the Biden administration announcing some student loan forgiveness. And the problem is the high cost of higher education. So here’s the indicator. Average tuition at a public four-year university last year was around $10,000. And even after you adjust for inflation, that is around a 90% increase over two decades ago.

WONG: You know, I’ve been, like, diligently putting money in my kid’s college fund, but I feel like by the time she actually goes to school, the amount I have saved will only pay for half a textbook or something.

ARONCZYK: Yes. And whatever you do, don’t send your kid to private college. That is so much worse than public.

MA: Yeah. And for private college, tuition averaged about $40,000 last year. And to make matters worse, it is really hard for students and parents who are plunking down tens of thousands of dollars to really know, like, how much will this investment pay off in the long run? And part of this is because college is what economists call a good experience. It’s a thing where you don’t really know the value of it until you experience it.

But what if you could actually get around that by looking at other people’s experiences? Well, that is actually the goal of a bipartisan bill that is currently percolating its way through Congress. It passed the House recently, and it’s called the College Transparency Act. And so what it would do is create this whole new data system which would allow the public to see how students from any given school do after they leave college. So, like, how are they doing in the job market? What are their earnings? And how much student debt do they still have?

ARONCZYK: Well, what I want to see is how much they’re making depending on what they majored in. Is that in this?

MA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this bill would also include data on, like, what people’s majors are, and a whole lot of other kinds of information about the various students’ backgrounds. It also calls for federal agencies to share data with each other so that students can be matched with data from agencies like the Social Security Administration or the Labor Department. And the idea is that we can actually see how those students do over their lifetimes.

WONG: When you say they’re going to match it with data from the Social Security Administration, I am betting privacy advocates are not jazzed about that.

MA: That is something that they are worried about is, like, the potential that this system could be abused somehow. Supporters of this bill, they say that the data would only be released in aggregate form. And the hope is it’ll just give people an ability to assess a school’s performance. Like, oh, this school that costs $10,000 a year to go to is just as good as this other one that costs $50,000. And hopefully, that will avoid some people getting stuck with a massive purchase that they will regret.

WONG: Well, speaking of massive purchases, Amazon reportedly wants to make a big acquisition that may or may not help with another intractable problem – affordable health care for seniors. And tied to that is my indicator. My indicator is also 32%. That is the pop in share price this week for a company called Signify Health. And their stock got a big bump after some reports that Amazon is trying to acquire the company. So Signify Health does in-home health evaluations. Someone comes to your house. They ask you about your medical history. They check your breathing. And then they share their findings with your primary care physician.

ARONCZYK: It’s sort of surprising in this moment of telehealth that it sounds like an old-fashioned, like, house call. Someone’s actually coming to your house.

WONG: Yeah. And the company says these in-home evaluations yield better results because the visits are longer than what you get when you see your primary care physician. You’re not just getting rushed out the door or whatever. And then ideally, if the visits are longer, the information is better, the quality of care goes up, and costs go down. And Signify Health says this is especially important for seniors because we have this aging population in need of affordable health care that many are not getting.

MA: Amazon is already, like, delivering millions of packages to, like, people’s doors every day. Why not that person who’s, like, dropping the box off just, like, walk inside and, like, slap a blood pressure cuff on your grandma?


WONG: I mean, this does raise some of the questions we talked about in your segment, Adrian, around, you know, like, data sharing and privacy, right? And it kind of also gets us into why Amazon might be interested in acquiring Signify Health because Signify Health is really big on data analytics. The company says that in one of these home health care visits, they capture over 200 data points. And then it analyzes data from labs and pharmacies and insurance claims and electronic medical records.

ARONCZYK: So are people worried about Amazon, this huge company that already knows so much about us, like, showing up at our house and now owning our medical data, too?

WONG: Yes. And these are questions that come up in a big way whenever Amazon makes a move in the health care space, which has been kind of often. Like, last month, it said it was paying $4 billion to acquire this company called One Medical that offers primary care services. And Amazon told CNBC that legally it has to handle health information separately from its other businesses. So it is prohibited by law from using personal health data to, like, market other Amazon products, unless the customer says it’s OK.

ARONCZYK: OK. So I have another old problem with this sort of new solution. But this old problem has actually gotten much worse lately, specifically over the last few months. We are all familiar with flight delays and flight cancellations.

WONG: Oh boy. Yes.

ARONCZYK: This is something that happened to me just a few weeks ago, and it is now my indicator of the week. The indicator is $1,000. A thousand dollars is the amount that I believe I am now owed by Air Canada for a canceled flight.

MA: Oh.

WONG: Ooh.

MA: Implied in that is that you have not yet received customer satisfaction.

WONG: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: Correct. So here’s what happened. In July, I needed to fly through Toronto back to New York. And my flight was delayed and delayed and delayed and delayed. And then finally, around 11:30 at night, the flight gets cancelled. Now, at that point, Air Canada staff kind of ushers everybody out of the gate. It’s got this, like, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here kind of vibe. You can’t sleep in the airport. Everybody’s got to go. And as you’re being ushered out, somebody hands you, like, this little, tiny little pamphlet. And it says Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

MA: So this is supposed to be, like, a consumer protection, FYI sort of pamphlet.

ARONCZYK: Exactly. Yes. These particular rules were finalized in 2019, right? So this was just before the pandemic and this summer of air travel discontent. So they hadn’t really had a chance to really, like, try all of these protections out. Inside the pamphlet, it says that as someone whose return was delayed by more than 9 hours, which was me, that I was entitled to 1,000 Canadian dollars in reimbursement. Now, these kinds of air passenger rights have existed for almost 20 years in Europe. Brazil also has some strong protections. But there hasn’t really been anything quite as clear or comprehensive in the US

Now Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg says he is on it. He very recently sent a terse letter to 10 major airlines saying the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable – so very scolding. So one new solution to this old problem is set to launch next week. It’s going to be a dashboard, kind of a one-stop shop of airline rules so that you can go to this place and figure out what you are owed if your flight has been disrupted.

WONG: Ooh. So I had a United Airlines flight get canceled recently. Does that mean if this happened again, I would get $1,000 back?

ARONCZYK: I don’t think so. You know, you might get back some of the money that you paid for the ticket. The airline might pay for a stay at a hotel, but there’s no, like, big umbrella regulation like there is in Europe or what has appeared in Canada. So back to Canada, because there’s been so many disruptions this summer, people are really fighting over their claims. The big fight is basically who is to blame. Like, in my case, we were told that there were not enough staff to fly the plane. So, like, is that my problem that they didn’t hire enough staff for that plane? Or is it COVID’s problem that they didn’t have enough people to staff a plane? So I will let you know who wins this fight. And it better be me.

WONG: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Corey Bridges with engineering from Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Kathryn Yang. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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