Darts and laurels

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

Dart to an e-mail error that mistakenly told about 2,700 freshmen applicants they had been accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when in fact they hadn’t and are still on the school’s “wait” list. School administrators quickly recognized the error and fired off new e-mails explaining the mistake, as well as issuing profuse apologies. “… It’s horrible that we’ve contributed to the stress that these students feel,” a UNC administrator said. The school’s reaction underscores how competitive college admissions can be these days, as well as how much pressure students are under to make the cut at a top-tier college. UNC-Chapel Hill typically enrolls about 3,800 new freshmen from among 20,000 applicants. Elsewhere on this page, you’ll find a commentary pointing out that the obsession with getting into an elite school isn’t healthy and may, in fact, hinder students from finding the best fit for their talents and dreams.

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Laurels to the humble kitchen and bathroom sponge. It cleans, it soaks up spills, it even gave us a somewhat bizarre cartoon character now beloved by millions of children. Only problem: the household sponge traps nasty germs the way garbage draws flies. Sponges are one of the key pathways for bacteria, viruses, parasites and other germs to spread in the home, causing many of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year, hygiene experts say. Some health experts recommend tossing sponges after a week’s use or running them through the dishwasher. But now there’s a better way to sanitize sponges: Just nuke ’em. A team of researchers at the University of Florida says their recipe for making sponges less infectious is simple: make sure the sponges are wet and then microwave them on high for about two minutes. “It won’t completely sterilize them, but it will knock out almost all of the bacteria,” according to microbiologist Gabriel Bitton.

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Dart to the “debt hangover,” as the credit counseling industry has dubbed the period after the holidays when Christmas cheer gives way to the bleak realities of January’s credit-card bills. It looks like all of those gift cards that were so popular last Christmas took a toll on the buyers’ wallets. Americans racked up $85.6 billion on major credit cards during the five weeks before Christmas, according to Cardweb.com, a credit card information service. Credit counselors have a lot of good advice for reining in credit card debt, including limiting the number of cards in your possession and paying off balances monthly, if possible. But ByDesign Financial Solutions in Fresno, Calif., offers another idea: Take any unwanted gifts you received and try to sell them on eBay or similar auction site. Then use the proceeds to pay down debt.

Americans racked up $85.6 billion on major credit cards during the five weeks before Christmas, according to Cardweb.com, a credit card information service

he holidays are over and the hangover has begun.It’s called a “debt hangover” in the credit counseling industry. It refers to the shock and depression that happen sometime after Jan. 20, when the credit card bills start rolling in with the total charges of all those gifts.Business normally increases by 50 percent this time of year at ByDesign Financial Solutions in Fresno, Calif., said Executive Vice President Martha Lucey. But this year it’s doubled, mainly because homeowners are struggling to pay their mortgages on top of their holiday bills, she said.Variable-rate mortgages with rising interest rates and interest-only loans in which homeowners are starting to pay back the principal are putting the squeeze on residents.Americans racked up $85.6 billion on major credit cards during the five weeks before Christmas, according to Cardweb.com, a credit card information service.Uriel Campos, 22, put $800 on credit cards buying Christmas presents for his 1-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.”I used it all Christmas long,” he said of his credit card. “It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. It’s all about the holidays.”He expects to pay it off in a few months, but others won’t be as lucky.The average household already owed $9,159 before the holidays, according to Cardweb.If your credit card bills are getting out of control, there are steps you can take, according to ByDesign, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. and Patrick Ritchie, author of “The Credit Road Map.”They include:Pay up. Pay your bills as soon as they arrive to avoid late fees or over-limit fees, ByDesign says. Tackle highest interest-rate cards first, but pay the minimum on everything.Ask for help. If you can’t pay the minimum, call your credit card company, Lucey says. Many allow you to negotiate your next payment or have reduced-interest rate programs for customers who are struggling.If that doesn’t work, get help from a reputable credit-counseling agency. Many offer free or low-cost advice.Remove the temptation. Visit www.optoutprescreen.com to opt out of pre-approved credit card offers, recommends Ritchie. Consumers can opt out for five years or permanently, with the chance to re-enroll.Use your gift cards. If possible, use your gift cards for everyday items, especially ones in which cards can be used at multiple stores. Put the cash you would have spent on necessities toward bills.Sell that Christmas sweater. Got a gift you don’t like? Don’t regift it, sell it, recommends ByDesign. Try Web sites such as Craigslist, eBay or Froogle. Just don’t shop while you’re online.Scour your bill. Review every purchase, recommends ByDesign. The holidays are ripe for identity theft and fraudulent purchases. If something doesn’t ring a bell, call your credit card company and dispute the charge.Switch cards. Check into transferring your balance to a credit card with a lower interest rate, says Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc. Beware of cards that offer a limited “introductory” interest rate that skyrockets when the time period is over.Hide the plastic. Put away all of your credit cards until they are paid off. Once they’re paid off, promise yourself not to make any more purchases unless you can pay them off in 90 days.Bethany Clough can be reached at bclough(at)fresnobee.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com

-NC–Admissions Mistake, 1st Ld-Writethru,0259

Admissions error incorrectly congratulates 2,700 UNC prospects

Eds: UPDATES throughout with new quotes from Farmer. No pickup.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — An admissions department e-mail sent from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill congratulated 2,700 prospective freshmen this week on their acceptance to the school.The problem is none of the students have been admitted yet to the school. They are on the school’s wait list and won’t find out until March whether they’ve made the cut.”It’s humbling and it’s horrible that we made this mistake,” Stephen Farmer, the school’s director of undergraduate admissions, said Thursday. “We don’t want to do anything to make the admissions process more difficult than it already is, and it’s horrible to think that we’ve contributed to the stress that these students feel.”Farmer said two employees accidentally sent the e-mail Tuesday. It began, “Congratulations again on your admission to the University.”The e-mail was intended to request mid-year grades from high school students who have already been accepted to the school.Admissions officials have since sent follow-up e-mails apologizing for the error. They have also e-mailed admissions counselors around the nation to explain the mistake.Farmer said a couple hundred students and parents have responded.”They were incredibly friendly, cordial and understanding — and we are, of course, grateful for their understanding,” Farmer said, adding that the department is developing additional internal controls to prevent the error from happening again.About 20,000 people apply each year to UNC Chapel Hill, and the school enrolls about 3,800 new freshmen.About 20,000 people apply each year to UNC Chapel Hill, and the school enrolls about 3,800 new freshmen. (means roughly 19 percent of applicants get in …)