Community, Return on Investment

Valuing Community

Well, it is Labor Day and here in the northeastern United States we are taking those end of summer walks, paddles, and swims. It is a celebratory holiday, with the hint of melancholy that endings always bring.  For me, it is always a happy time as we start the new school year and enter the season of apples, cinnamon, and changing leaves.

The hint of the crisp weather to come was in the air last week, and I was prompted to get out my bicycle to take a ride on a nearby rail trail. Rail trails have been an ever-present part of my adult life. When my children were young, my husband and I would pack them up, first in bike seats on our bicycles, then on little bikes of their own, and eventually, setting them free on proper bikes, training wheels gone, and streamers flying. The rail trails offered our family a safe, car-free space for our adventures.

Yesterday, my husband and I rode the Dutchess County Rail Trail from Hopewell Junction to the Walkway Over the Hudson.  It’s a lovely ride, but that is not my point.  What was great about the trail, which I have watched emerge over the last 20 years, is the community values it represents. Like all parks and trails, it required local time and money, community investment and labor, an occasional grant, and a vision of the positive impact it would have on Dutchess County.  People joined together to make something that would improve the quality of life for those around. This, is a wonderful impulse.

The Walkway Over the Hudson (an old railroad bridge, now a pedestrian and cycling route) offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and has become a destination all by itself.  From a derelict and scary structure to this vibrant park, some intrepid folks had enough imagination to move it forward.  Not only is the resulting structure beautiful and generally packed with people during the warmer months, but on either side, small businesses have popped up.  This investment has surely resulted in some monetary returns as it draws tourists to experience the views.

But the rest of it, the winding trail, with bridges over highways, and parking spots for shorter and longer loops, brought something more than a monetary reward… it brought an improved quality of life. As we pedaled along yesterday we passed people of all ages–newborns in backpacks, small children with training wheels, dog walkers on roller blades, people in wheel chairs, and senior citizens taking a slow stroll.  On this rail trail I passed people of many colors and sizes and I believe I heard at least six different languages spoken.  This wonderfully democratic experience, with no admission fees, brings cultures together in the most positive ways.

Now I could talk about property values (probably improved by this investment) or the other potential business that may result, or the actual health benefits of trails and parks as they encourage people to get up and move about, but I am most impressed by they way these things represent our commitment to community.  Time spent and funds raised on building these come from people who see the value of the experiences the trails will provide without seeking a financial payoff.  Families and neighbors then volunteer to help with the upkeep, representing a continued commitment to making the world a nicer place.  When we do these things, we all demonstrate care for our friends and neighbors and even those visitors from far and wide, dreaming of that common good for all.

So, it’s Labor Day, the perfect day to think about commitment to the common good. The work of labor unions in creating a reasonable standard of living for all is a clear representation of that commitment. People came together for the betterment of the whole, rather than advocating for the one.  That work improved working standards and created better living conditions for the many.  Our willingness to invest in transportation, healthcare, and education also represent that commitment.  These things are a bet on the idea that we all have better lives when everyone has access to these essential things.

And parks of all kinds are really just that….a bet that we all have better lives when everyone can share in the beauty of the outdoors in a safe and accessible way.  This seems like an excellent way to spend Labor Day.  That, and a picnic of course.

Enjoy the holiday.

 

equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.

 

 

Higher Education, Return on Investment

Trust

As the hand wringing from last week’s scandal in elite higher education continues (oy!), there is an issue that is important to the rest of us.  Public trust in higher education is waning Now let’s be clear, we’ve always been both praised and pilloried – praised for the opportunities and experiences we provide, pilloried for our remove from the real world. In our various forms we’ve always been part of the pathway to professional degrees and the creation of new knowledge, but by design, we’re pretty judgmental which is irritating. This makes a love-hate relationship with higher education kind of normal.

What is new is this–as the cost of college tuition increases, more and more families are questioning the return on investment. Tales of wiz kids inventing apps in garages or hitting the big time in entertainment or sports suggest education might not be the only path to fame and fortune.  Stories of students with liberal arts degrees who can’t get jobs (told in the press in wild disproportion to the reality) make some see a traditional degree as a luxurious waste of time.  And there is the misguided notion that everyone should be enrolled in four-year degree right after high school.  When faced with the lived experience of friends and neighbors, this story just doesn’t hold up.

Well, I suppose we have it coming.  I could talk about how decreases in state funding of higher ed has driven much of the high cost of tuition (which is true), but that doesn’t change the experiences of our families who are striving for their children.  I could also insist that people with undergraduate degrees endure the vagaries of our economic cycles much better than those without (also true), but there are lots of jobs right now, so no one wants to hear that. I could remind folks that even those who major in the most traditional of liberal arts degrees (philosophy, literature, history) have better earning power than those with no degrees, and over a lifetime of work and tend to catch up with a lot of the more professionally focused degrees (including some STEM disciplines).  Yet, this is cold-comfort for those most recent grads living at home because they are paying off student loans.

As great as college education is for our economic system, our political system, and the health and well-being of our citizens, we are still describing what we do in unsupported and undifferentiated terms.  We’re asking the public to trust us, rather than making it clear that we have the best interest of our students’ futures in mind.

Well, not really.  This is really just happening in the media versions of college (both in fact-based and fictional genres). Our realities are very different.  We do, in fact, recommend multiple paths to our students.  Good high school guidance counselors are focused on the varied educational experiences available to students (public and private, four-year, two-year, training programs, etc.). Our high schools also still include technical training opportunities, which is a very important option for many.  Choosing from these many distinct opportunities would be easier for families and school districts if people weren’t so obsessed with that prestigious Ivy League experience.

Good colleges and universities also provide real guidance to students.  We work closely with students to get them on the right path. Some start at a four-year university, but find it isn’t a good place for them.  Good college advisors help students transition to the right place–sometimes a community college, sometimes work until the student has a better sense of what they want out of their education. We have also developed programs to help students return to college if their first attempt didn’t go well (Fresh Start Programs, for example).  At a school like mine, students also stop and start for financial or family reasons, so we’re finding structures to help them manage these real-world obstacles to degree completion.

In public higher education, we’ve also worked hard to make transfer from certificate to two-year to four-year degrees relatively easy (I’m not convinced it is seamless yet). We’re not creating a bunch of stackable credentials as part of a new trend in education, we’re helping students see that we’ve had those stackable options all along.  The trick is to help everyone complete something, so that they have the chance to move on when ready. We’ve also created advising supports to try to keep students from amassing too much debt in their pursuit of an education.  We hate seeing students piling on loan after loan without a good outcome.

But this is the real story that we all have to get our minds around.  The emerging economies rely on an educated workforce.  Our graduates have to be ready to learn throughout our professional lives, because job requirements are changing at a pace that no single degree or certificate can keep up with.  We do want everyone to earn post-secondary education credentials, and probably those credentials will lead to degrees, because we want our students to be able to respond to the changing world of work throughout their lives. But we know the path to those credentials will vary.

So, we have to be clear about the benefits and limitations of each type of educational experience available.  We have to match those experiences to the students we are supporting, doing our best to meet their needs in both the short and long-term. We have to be responsive to the need for lifelong learning and continue to build credentials that support that need.  And we have to articulate the value of the more abstract reasoning and cultural competency that comes from all of those courses that don’t have a visible link to a specific career.  Why? Because we know that students with these capabilities do better over time. The evidence for this exists, but we have to tell everyone.

In other words, we have to earn the trust of the public. I’m sure that if people knew just how much higher education pays attention to where students are going, they’d feel better about us.  If we can show them evidence for our claims about what we do instead of asking folks to just trust us, that would also help.  And, if we demonstrate that we are paying attention to students as individuals, mapping their educational experiences to their unique needs, people might feel better about the financial investment they are making.

Then we need to figure out how to get the press to stop obsessing on a single, elite model of education, and tell the rest of the story.