LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.
It's the end of August, and a large portion of the college students who graduated in the spring still can't find a job or they're working part time as baristas, waiters, retail clerks. At the same time, millions of high school graduates are heading off to college, presumably hoping things will be better in four years. With the recession making it hard for those - even those with college degrees to find a job, we'll talk about who's hiring now. We'll ask how the class of 2013 will be different from 2009. Are kids changing their majors? Making different plans? Or are they confident in - that the future will be better?
We'd like to hear from recent college graduates. What are you doing for work now? And we'd also like to hear from parents. What are your college grads up to and is it working out the way you hoped? Employers out there, are you hiring?
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from member station WBUR in Boston is Paul Harrington. He's associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, author of the book "College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs." That's a long title. Welcome back to the program, Paul.
Professor PAUL HARRINGTON (Associate Director, Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University; Author): It's a pleasure to be here, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: So how bad do you think the labor market is for the class of 2009?
Prof. HARRINGTON: It's pretty bad. We've had pretty massive job losses, six-and-a-half million jobs since the beginning of the downturn. The unemployment rate now is at nine - basically at nine-and-a-half percent. We saw the size of the labor force last month actually fall, which was very distressing because it means more discouraged workers out there. So it's an extremely tough labor market for young adults to be trying to enter right now.
WERTHEIMER: Do you suppose that - I mean, do they get any benefits at all from being entry-level hires? There are a lot people who are - who've let some of their employees go. And when they start rehiring, do you think they'll start with the young ones?
Prof. HARRINGTON: No. In fact, it's gone the other way, Linda. When you look at the age distribution of employment, we've actually seen the number of people over the age of 55 who are employed actually grow by about a million over the last year. So the work force is actually getting older, not younger. Job access for people under the age of - particularly 16-19 has deteriorated to historic lows, and it's not much better for kids 20-24.
WERTHEIMER: So what are - what kinds of jobs - when they get jobs, what sort of jobs do they get?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, kids coming out of college - it's - we need to distinguish between the two groups. For kids coming out of college now who don't go to graduate school - in other words, these are youngsters just coming out of school and saying, I want to go to work, about 35 percent of those…
WERTHEIMER: Graduated 2009, those people.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, yeah. Well - put it like this. This is data for people age 25 and under who have a bachelor's degree. That's what I've got.
WERTHEIMER: Okay. All right.
Prof. HARRINGTON: And that - what you find there is about three-quarters of those people would actually be - I'm sorry, among those who are not in school, you find a very high fraction that have a job. About 84 percent will actually be working. But of that, only about two-thirds will have in what I call the college labor market, a professional, technical, managerial job. So you have 1.7 million young kids coming out of college, don't want to go to graduate school. They get a job, but only about 1.1 million of them will work in the college labor market. Another five, 600,000 will actually be working in high school labor market jobs this year. That's a big number.
WERTHEIMER: So that would be like waitresses, bartenders.
Prof. HARRINGTON: That's right. It's - that's right. That's right. So they're jobs where, you know, if you're a mechanical engineer but you get a job selling shoes, your mechanical engineering skills just don't count.
WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm. So do you see that very many people are thinking about, okay, let's take this downturn time and maybe pick up an extra degree, or…
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: …perhaps do some training for extra skills?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yeah. We have - you know, when I went back and took a look at this, we find about a quarter of the kids under 25 now are enrolled in some kind of additional schooling. You know, they're enrolled in school and about - but the interesting thing with that group, Linda, is about half of them work. So that there is still very high work rates, even among people who are enrolled in school. And those who are enrolled in school, they tend to actually be working. About two-thirds of them who work are also working in professional, technical, managerial jobs. So the people that are going into these graduate programs, they're going much more on a part-time basis. They have professional jobs and they're trying to build that resume, you know, with an MBA or an MPH or whatever that whole range of degrees are, particularly as they see these adverse labor market conditions.
WERTHEIMER: So, who in the class of 2009 - these are the recent college graduates or the under 24s, as you say, who's doing best?
Prof. HARRINGTON: The kids coming out of the health fields. The health fields have been strong probably since going back to 1998. And the employment situation in the health fields has actually remained very strong relative to the deterioration of the rest of the economy. Hospitals, non-hospital kinds of positions, med-surg techs, nurses, public health specialists, all these fields have still stayed very strong. The ratio - last time I looked, and just the other day I looked at the ratio of unemployed people in the health field to job vacancies, it was still only 1.5:1. To put that in context, Linda, in the construction field, it's about 40:1.
WERTHEIMER: So, wow. So you're - are there - the health majors are, of course, that's rather specific. I mean, that would be nursing and management of health care and whatnot. But what about liberal arts? Is liberal arts turning out to be not a good thing to be doing?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, the trick for liberal arts majors is - think about different major field of study, one set being a set of professionals: business, scientific engineering sets of fields and the health fields. And then the other sort of being the social science, humanities fields. For students to get the payoff to the professional areas, they need actually to get that professional job, that engineering job, that science job, that - you know, or accounting job. For people coming out of the liberal arts area, what their best opportunity is is to get a job in a professional area, oftentimes in government or nonprofit.
And to be honest, government and nonprofit has actually, you know, done a little bit better, in part because of the economic stimulus plan. So government has been one of the sectors - particularly on the teaching side where demand has stayed relatively strong, as well. So the kids coming out of some of those areas may not have done as badly as you might otherwise have thought.
WERTHEIMER: Okay. Now, we're going to reach out to our audience here, and we're going to talk to Gayle, who is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I understand, Gayle, that you are the parent of a pair of students who are moving on into the real world.
GAYLE (Caller): Yes. Hi, Linda. I have a son who graduated in June with a degree in French, who originally thought he'd go into teaching. Now he's waiting tables, as we speak, and he is thinking very seriously about joining the Peace Corps. And a daughter who just graduated high school who decided that she was going to pursue nursing when she saw that her brother was ending up without a lot of options. So I've got both ends of that spectrum. Things changed a lot in the four years that my son was in school, and it was an eye-opener.
WERTHEIMER: So are you urging your high school graduate to do anything differently?
GAYLE: Well, yes and no. We urge all three of our kids to have many different things that they can do and fall back on. I'm a liberal arts believer. I think it's a way to go. But I think it's a platform and we've told all three of our kids that they really need to think about post-graduate work to - as well as volunteering and getting a lot of sources of different things, looking at the current economy and what is down the road for our children. I think that if they don't learn anything, they need to learn that they have to be very versatile and flexible.
WERTHEIMER: And especially in times like these. I guess that's a major lesson. Thanks very much, Gayle.
GAYLE: Thank you. Bye.
WERTHEIMER: Pam McClellan is in our studios, and she is one of the people who is responsible for counseling high school students at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. Pam McClellan, thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. PAM McCLELLAN (Counselor, Washington and Lee High School): Thank you for inviting me.
WERTHEIMER: Now, you advise high school students on what direction to take after graduation. What are you telling your college-bound high school graduates?
Ms. McCLELLAN: Well, what we're telling them is we're telling them to look at the different factors that they need to take into account. One is a major. One is the geographic location, the size of the school, the amount of money the school costs. And a lot of the students, most of the students that I counsel find that they don't know what they want to major in yet when they're leaving high school to go to college.
WERTHEIMER: Does that matter?
Ms. McCLELLAN: No. We try to say it doesn't matter. Sometimes when they do know, they get there and after their first year they've decided to change their mind, anyway. So I think the first two years, we encourage them to explore and to be able to switch, to go to a school where they will be able to change their major or change their mind because it presents them with lots of options.
WERTHEIMER: Let me go back for one second to Paul Harrington. Paul Harrington, does it matter very much what kids major in? I mean, is that - are they making some kind of life-changing decision or not?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yes, they are, and it matters in two ways. We send - about 40 percent of all the kids coming out of our high schools this year will go to a two-year community college. And for those kids, that's their bite at the apple. They've got to make that work for them at that point. Very few of those youngsters will actually end up going on to a four-year college to get a degree. So as a result, the set of choices they make at that point really matter a lot.
The second thing is that at a four-year level, there's an enormous dispersion in the lifetime earnings experiences of people by major field of study, and so as a consequence - at least with respect to the measure of employment and earnings outcomes, you know, what you choose to study as an undergraduate really has this very powerful effect on where you end up in life.
Having said that, I agree with Pam that where you need to start is with who you are as a person. And, you know, to force somebody into engineering that just doesn't like math or isn't good at math is a bad idea, but to ignore the fact that there's a labor market out there that has these wide-ranging needs and provides very different returns for those needs I also think is a bad idea.
WERTHEIMER: So are they - are your kids, Pam McClellan, are your kids making some - are they thinking about the economy as they graduate from high school?
Ms. McCLELLAN: I think they're thinking about it. I think they definitely are aware of it. They still are interested in - yes, they're interested in what they're going to be able to do in life after college. I do think that they think that far ahead.
They have career counseling on the college campuses, and they are encouraged to talk with people there to keep them on top of the labor market, keep them on top of what kinds of jobs are emerging. And they need to declare a major by, usually by the end of their second year. So there are people there who do counsel them as they go through their college experience. It's when they're leaving high school, they may be thinking about it, but, you know, this is an 18-year-old student. They're still keeping their mind open.
WERTHEIMER: Paul McClellan, Paul Harrington, with us here in the studio, talking about the awful job market facing many new college graduates and what it means for the incoming class of 2013. There are some bright spots out there. In a few minutes, we'll talk about those in-demand jobs, and we'll take more of your calls.
The phone number is 800-989-8255. The address is email@example.com. I'm Linda Wertheimer, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.
In the current market, your chances of finding a job depend even more than they have in the past on your degree. Petroleum and chemical engineers, congratulations. Forbes magazine reports that you are in demand.
We'll talk more about what jobs will help pay off those student loans in a moment with the deputy editor for Forbes and how the incoming class of 2013 might plan ahead. And we'd like to hear from recent college grads in the audience. Tell us: What are you actually doing for work now, what your hopes are? Parents, what are your college grads up to? Is it what you planned for them? And employers out there, are you hiring these recent graduates?
Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. and you can join the conversation also at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're talking with Paul Harrington, who is - who wrote the "College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs," and with Pam McClellan, who works as director of counseling at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia.
So thank you both for being with us. Let me - I was just asking you, Pam, what you think about the economy affecting the high school graduates. Is it affecting their choices of schools? You said that one of the big deals is trying to figure out how much things are going to cost. Do you find more of your graduates, as Paul Harrington just observed, are going to community colleges?
Ms. McCLELLAN: We do have students going to community college. What we try to do is take a step back and we try to sit down with the family and we try to just lay the choices out for them. You know, we want you to consider the price of college.
We want you to consider how long you expect to be in college. Of course, we -you know, we continue to encourage students to go on to four-year colleges and go through graduate programs. We think that's really important. And at Washington and Lee, we've prepared them. We make sure that they try to get into as many advanced classes as possible so they have the best shot of success when they get into the college environment. It's one of the many factors that we put in front of parents, and we say these are things you need to consider. Ultimately, you know, they make that decision.
WERTHEIMER: Well, of course, the Washington area is an area which is perhaps not as - not hit as hard by this recession as other areas. So maybe their choices would not be so limited as you were describing, Paul Harrington. But let's just - let me just check in here with Caitlin(ph), who is in Cleveland, Ohio, and has just graduated from Oberlin, I understand. Congratulations.
CAITLIN (Caller): Oh, thanks. Yeah, I just graduated in May, and the best I could do was get an internship at a local newspaper that paid me $100 a week, and my last day is tomorrow. And I don't have any job prospects at all lined up, and I've been looking. I've been looking everywhere, and I'm kind of scared because I obviously haven't been able to save up a lot.
My parents aren't in a position themselves to help me, and, you know, even waiting tables, even jobs like that are kind of - are competitive now. And, I mean, this is a $50,000-a-year degree I have, and I can't get anything. I'm looking for something in journalism, and I know that's hard, right now especially. But, like, I've kept all options open and still, still…
WERTHEIMER: Well, do you - when you look back on your recent college career, do you think that there might have - you might have done something differently?
CAITLIN: Absolutely not. You know, my degree was in comparative literature, and I don't regret that at all. I got a fabulous education, and I took advantage of all the opportunities to get internships. I worked really, really hard. I have a great resume. It's not like I did anything wrong. It's the economy.
WERTHEIMER: So it's not - you're not feeling like this has shaken your confidence. You just have to figure out a way to wait it out. Is that what you're saying?
CAITLIN: No, it's shaken my confidence in my ability pay rent. And…
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: I can see how…
Prof. HARRINGTON: Linda, if I could just…
CAITLIN: My confidence is definitely shaken there. But, you know, I just - I need a job. I need a job.
WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much, Caitlin. Paul Harrington.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yeah, I think Caitlin's in a unique spot. She's right. She is a victim of the economy. For the last 15 years, our economy's more or less run at full employment levels, so a lot of her predecessors did really well, and she got signaled into these fields, saying, hey, if you major in comparative literature, you can still do pretty well.
The problem is, the world changed, and it's probably changed in a way that we're going to be in a condition substantial excess labor supply for a number of years. But the second thing that's going on here is there's a structural change.
The types of jobs that are being generated are changing, as well, and journalism happens to be one of them. And the demand in that field, as the structure of - that the information industry's really changed, the demand for, you know, reporters - and I have personal in this. My daughter's a reporter.
WERTHEIMER: I'm a reporter.
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Prof. HARRINGTON: You're a reporter, exactly. So as the nature of that business changes and the nature of the advertising associated with that business changes, it looks like it's in a - it's an industry that's - particularly the newsprint industry is one in which there's long-term decline.
So if you want to be in the journalism business, you really need to figure out different ways of doing that, by going into specialized, you know, business reporting, defense reporting, you know, a whole range of sets of things. You know, I think the days of sort of the general newspaper assignment reporter are rapidly coming to an end.
WERTHEIMER: Pam McClellan, do your kids - as you talk to them about what is happening, they obviously are aware of the economy and they must be thinking that, you know, they're glad that they're going to college now instead of looking for a job now. But do you find that they are thinking about profitable lines they might get into, things where they think they might have a chance at getting a job? I mean, are these sneaky little 18-year-old people actually thinking in those terms?
Ms. McCLELLAN: I think they think in those terms all the time. I think they think about money. I think they want to make a lot of money, and I think they have high hopes still. I do think they have high hopes, the 18-year-olds, the 19-year-olds headed off to college.
I think, you know, talking about students that are graduating from college, it may be a very different thing. But I think our high-schoolers still feel pretty excited about going off on that adventure. And hopefully they'll be able to stay, and they'll continue to find scholarships and ways to stay in college.
WERTHEIMER: Pam McClellan. She is the director of counseling at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. Pam, thank you so much.
Ms. McCLELLAN: Thank you very much, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Paul, what about these high school kids? Do you think - I mean, are you finding in any of the research you're doing that four years from now, they'll be in better shape?
Prof. HARRINGTON: The fraction of kids who are saying…
WERTHEIMER: Do they feel that they'll be in better shape?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, they hope they will be, because the fraction of high school seniors that we're sending to college this year is the highest we've ever had. We're probably going to send 80 percent of our high school seniors to college this year. It's a stunningly, stunningly high number.
WERTHEIMER: Despite the fact that in many cases, their families will be unemployed or under-employed? I mean, that's amazing.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Right. Yeah, it is because we're really expanding the Pell system, and we're really using the community college at very high rates to…
WERTHEIMER: The grants, the Pell grants that - from the government, yes.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Exactly, right. But also, we're using the community colleges in general to just really expand the number of kids who are enrolled. The reason why these youngsters are doing this is because their job prospects are so poor that the community college, then, their opportunity costs at a community college and other kinds of educational activities is actually pretty low.
So we're sending lots and lots of kids in there, and the problem with this is - and I'm all for this, Linda. I think this is a good thing. But for many of these kids, they don't have good imaginations. They don't know where they're headed, and that's why it's so important for them to have an adult, to have a career counselor, to have somebody help them make decisions, both in high school and in college, about the nature of the curricular choices they make, because those curricular choices that they make have powerful lifetime impacts on where they're going to end up.
WERTHEIMER: And that seems like it would be a very tough thing for a kid of 18 to do. I know I was certainly not particularly equipped, but then I graduated into one of those kinds of economies where, you know, everybody - every place I applied for a job, I got it.
Prof. HARRINGTON: You know, that's the point, though, Linda. Once it's all done, I'd rather be lucky than smart.
WERTHEIMER: Yeah, it worked for me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. HARRINGTON: You know, kids who graduated back in '97, '98, '99, who, you know, had liberal arts sets of backgrounds were getting multiple job offers -not just one, multiple sets of job offers.
We had rapidly rising wages. We had unemployment rates that were - in New England, we had the lowest unemployment rate of any region in the country ever measured in the late 1990s. It was under two percent - so that the labor market environment that we're in 10 years later is wildly different, and it's something that's not going to be a temporary phenomenon.
The next two, three, four years, kids coming out of college are going to have a tough time.
WERTHEIMER: David Ewalt joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's deputy editor at Forbes magazine, and they put together several lists recently on the best jobs for new college graduates and the college degree programs with the highest salaries. Welcome to the program, David.
Mr. DAVID EWALT (Deputy Editor, Forbes): Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: So what field do you think is treating the class of 2009 the best?
Mr. EWALT: Well, if you look at the fields that have the best starting salaries for graduates, for someone who's straight out of school, it's the engineering fields that really show up high. Petroleum engineering - these are the people who find and extract oil and gas from the ground. The average starting salary for a grad is $83,000, and that's up almost 10 percent from 2008.
WERTHEIMER: So - and they are finding - they don't have any problems finding jobs? There are lots of jobs out there for even - for people who don't yet know what they're doing?
Mr. EWALT: Well, if you're trained in these very specific fields, you're having an easy time finding job. In fact, these fields are wide open and they've got slots open that they can't fill. Now, that's, of course, not to say that, you know, if you graduate with an English degree or an anthropology degree or something like that, that you can easily step into one of these jobs. You certainly can't.
WERTHEIMER: What about - well, what about the best job for people who are not trained in a technical field? Are there such jobs?
Mr. EWALT: There certainly are. I mean, you can look at things like - things like human resources. There's a lot of jobs opening up there right now. You know, sometimes for grim reasons, you know, they need more HR people to manage the restructuring of companies. But there's jobs available, particularly working for the U.S. government there's a lot of HR jobs available right now. Jobs like nurses and pharmacists, which are not necessarily technical but have their own special training, those also are very big right now.
WERTHEIMER: And what about - is there a location where recent graduates are more likely to find work?
Mr. EWALT: Well, it really depends on the industry. There are certainly hot spots. If you're getting job in information technology or in something having to do with computers, the big hot spot right now is New York City. If you're getting a job in accounting or in business management or HR, Washington, D.C. is a good hot spot.
WERTHEIMER: And Forbes had a list this year of 10 best jobs for college graduates. How did you pick them?
Mr. EWALT: Well, this came from surveys. There's one done by the National Association of Colleges and Employers where they surveyed 200 colleges. And they asked them, you know, when you talk to your graduates, where are your graduates getting jobs, if they are getting jobs? And how much are they making? So, it's all based on the actual experience of recent college graduates.
WERTHEIMER: Okay. We're going to go - we're going to talk to one of our callers here. Let's see. Eric(ph), class of '07 from San Jose, California.
ERIC (Caller): Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: What can you tell us about your experience?
ERIC: Well, I currently - I graduated in 2007 with a degree in forestry. And now I currently work in the field of environmental education. And I'm thankful to have worked through some kind of difficult situations to get to the position where I am.
I would say that what has worked really well for me is that in the past - the last two years of college to take internships and jobs that you may have to make a couple of sacrifices for and not make very much money, but build your career experience and get you around the country that will set you up to start to take some entry-level positions. And then kind of try to springboard off graduating and internships to utilize really fantastic programs like AmeriCorps where you can serve for a year or less and really build your career experience and set you up pretty nicely to try to work in a field that's related to your degree…
ERIC: …to what you like to do.
WERTHEIMER: Advice from Eric in San Jose, California. Thanks for that. What -we still have David and Paul with us. Does that sound like good advice to you guys?
Mr. HARRINGTON: Well, work experience when you're in college, particularly if it's…
Mr. HARRINGTON: …related to - toward your studies has very, very big payoffs. The labor market at the end of the day, Linda, is a social institution. And what I think Eric was describing is a form of try-out employment. Universities like Drexel University, Northeastern University, that emphasize cooperative education, we find a lot of the gains that we get out of that - really come at the end of the junior, senior year where employers get to try out these new hires and figure out are these the right kids that fit in kind of culturally and socially and intellectually and professionally within our organization?
So, certainly, those kind of work experiences, particularly to the extent that they're tied into the major field of study, have very big economic payoffs and job market payoffs for youngsters that are able to take advantage of them.
WERTHEIMER: David, do you see that they are, I mean, I don't suppose the Forbes' study takes into account places where you don't work for very much money. But does that still - does that look like a path that makes sense?
Mr. EWALT: Well, I think employers are very aware of how difficult the current situation is for graduates. And I think they will be understanding if they see your resume two, three years down the road, you know, maybe you're applying to be a banker or something else. And if they see, oh, I spent two or three years as a waiter or in AmeriCorps and something that's sort of not a direct clear path to the job they're applying for, I think employers will be understanding of that. And I think they'll say, well, you know what, you've worked, that's important. And we see that you've got discipline and that you held down the job.
Mr. HARRINGTON: I would have to just say this, that the evidence doesn't support that. That where you start out…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRINGTON: Yeah. Where you start out of college really matters a lot. And that's why you see a lot of, you know, new college grads, if they can't get access to a fulltime job, they will actually try and then go to graduate school because that beginning job really matters a lot and can really hold you down over your lifetime.
WERTHEIMER: That - that even those baby lawyers who are getting paid not to come to work at the firm…
Mr. HARRINGTON: Right.
WERTHEIMER: …they will be slightly behind their contemporaries for the rest of their lives?
Mr. HARRINGTON: Or maybe more behind.
Mr. HARRINGTON: There can be big, big economic consequences to - negative economic consequences to not starting in a professional labor market in an area where - that's connected to what you studied. There can be very, very big problems associated with that.
WERTHEIMER: Okay. Paul Harrington. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. He is associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, author of the book "College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs." Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. HARRINGTON: My pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We are also -saying goodbye at this moment to David Ewalt, who has very kindly joined us from Forbes. And we have links to the Forbes articles on the highest-paid college degrees and the best jobs for graduates right now. You can find those at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Forbes deputy editor David Ewalt joined us from our New York bureau. David, thank you very much for doing this.
Mr. EWALT: Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Now, let's see. Should we take another call for our - okay. Coming up, we're going to have the case of convicted murderer Troy Davis and whether evidence of actual innocence is enough to stop an execution. At least one Supreme Court justice argues that it is not enough. So, stay with us.
I'm Linda Wertheimer. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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