We took ourselves back to school on our Back-To-School Road Trip from Minneapolis to New Orleans. Here’s what we learned, who we met, and some bonus travel tips.

Seeing Campus Through New Eyes

On the last afternoon of our road trip to talk with Americans about higher education, Sara and I stopped at Tulane University in New Orleans — the wealthiest, most selective of any of the places we visited all week.

As we walked by The Commons, a brand-new dining center, I’ll admit I felt at home. My daughters go to colleges like Tulane, and, years ago, I went to a place like Tulane — rich, private institutions where half of the students can afford to pay $60,000 a year for the privilege.

But now, at the end of this trip, I saw this campus through the eyes of everyone we met over the past 1,500 miles. And it looked like the Taj Mahal. Gleaming and polished. Global. Powerful.

The banners welcoming us to campus make that clear:

  • “№4 Happiest Students”
  • “Top 25 Most Innovative Schools”
  • “Top Producer of Fulbright Students”
  • “#1 Producer of Peace Corp Volunteers”

Tulane is renowned for its commitment to service in its hometown, especially since Hurricane Katrina (there’s a banner for that, too: “Number one engaged in the community”). But like any top research university, it’s so much bigger than its neighborhood. Even the languages (German, Chinese) and snippets of conversations were different than what we heard elsewhere:

“If I go abroad for fall semester …”
“Do you want to be pre-med?”
“Just fly first-class.”

Campuses like this, I know, are what a lot of us see in our mind’s eye when we talk about college. I often do. But deliberately focusing for even just a week on thinking expansively about higher-ed was eye-opening.

“College” can be a tricky word. It’s like “lunch.” We all agree that it refers to a mid-day meal, but beyond that? It’s so many different experiences: a convenience-store hot dog, the leftovers from the night before, the fancy expense-account restaurant.

As we drove, Sara and I talked about what jumped out to us in our dozens of conversations. Rising to the top, we determined, was the notion of utility. College, for just about everyone we spoke with, was a tool. On the other hand, “status” was an idea that never got broached.

No one talked about “elite” colleges or even “admissions.” The Ivy League never came up, other than a T-shirt in a shop window in Oxford, Miss., proclaiming Ole Miss as “Harvard of the South.” And Varsity Blues, the admissions scandal that got all the headlines earlier this year? No one mentioned it.

At the same time, we noticed, college was everywhere. Drive through communities in America, with your eyes peeled for the impact of higher-ed, and you see how it shapes the landscape. Universities are mentioned on countless highway exit signs. They’re marketed on billboards. They take up prime real estate. We soon realized we were like beachcombers with a metal detector. These stories were right below the surface. We just needed to be listening for them.

We never started out by saying to someone, “So, tell us how you feel about college.”

Instead, we asked about the roller derby, or about the Gateway Arch, or how long they’d owned this restaurant, or what was hard about being a tattoo artist. And invariably, within just a few minutes, they’d mention college.

It wasn’t the college that often gets talked about in national conversations, though. It was the community college Eddie Tanner is going to go to next year after he saves up enough money for a car. The women’s college Ann Dees attended in the 1970s that allowed her to come back home to become a librarian. The college Dave McCaddon never went to because he was too busy riding his motorcycle around the country and jumping out of airplanes with the Army.

When we cooked up this idea we called it our “back-to-school” trip partly because it was at the end of summer but more so because we wanted to take ourselves to class, to understand how Americans perceive these institutions in their lives.

Our glimpse into their concerns and dreams was fascinating. Now we have other questions:

How can we do reporting that better serves the people we met? And in a nation where colleges are everywhere, where higher ed matters to communities, where it shapes so many lives, what does it mean that we have so few journalists dedicated to understanding it and holding it accountable?

We have some specific story ideas from eight days on the road, and we’d love to hear the ones you think are getting missed.

— Scott Smallwood

Voices From the Road

We talked with people in all kinds of places over the miles: A deli and a pub. A Cookie Cart and a Waffle House. A community cleanup, a summer concert, and a second line parade.

One thing we found: People are generous. They shared insights and experiences, sometimes very personal ones, and warmly welcomed us — the curious outsiders who came asking a lot of questions. We can’t remember a single person who turned us away.

College sits at the center of all kinds of their stories: stories about struggle, decay, and reinvention, and stories about tough beginnings, entrepreneurial dreaming, and joyful celebrating.

Here are some of the people we met:

  • Eddie, a recent high-school graduate working the counter at the Waffle House in Canton, Miss., after a shift at a chicken processing plant. He plans to go to college — after he can buy a car to get there.
  • Anna, a business major who was waiting for class at a small branch campus in the Quad Cities. She was very clear: she’s not a person who will be graduating with debt.
  • Ann, a retired librarian we met inside an Oxford, Miss., outdoor equipment superstore. We talked for more than an hour about life and the liberal agenda.
  • Sofia, a junior at Illinois State who is sticking with college because she doesn’t want to just get by in life. At a poster sale, she told us how a geology class changed everything.
  • Shameem, a St. Louis alderwoman who was clearing brush at a community clean up. Trade schools put her on the right path, and now she’s trying to bring hope to neighborhoods confronting basic needs.
  • Phyllis, a Southerner who moved to Minneapolis for a graduate program designed to diversify the state’s teaching ranks. At a bakery, she explained how that changed her life’s trajectory.
  • Dave, a maintenance worker at Illinois State we met over lunch at a pub he helped build. He didn’t go to college, never even considered it, and regaled us with tales about life experience.
  • Jack, who was manning the welcome desk at the Gateway Arch National Park. It was his first week of community college and he has a plan: to become a park ranger someday.
  • Kenya, the president and CEO of a public benefit corporation in Minneapolis who has seven years of college experience and no college degree. To her, college seems like a bit of a game.
  • Andrea, a certified nursing assistant we met when she was volunteering at the Memphis Roller Derby. She has risen above her rough childhood: “Never give up,” she says.

Read more here about others we talked with: Sara’s old neighbor, a tattoo artist in New Orleans, a St. Louis pastor, the owner of a Minneapolis eatery, a record-store employee (and graduate student) in Normal, Ill., and a lot of residents of Oxford, Miss., honoring the life of a beloved townie.

Our Travel Tips

A brief guide for when you take your own road trip down the Mississippi:

Best cell-phone tower in disguise: The Washington Monument Cell Phone Tower in Ridgeland, Miss., on the side of I-55. It’s about one-third the height of the real one in the nation’s capital.

Best super-large, auto-dealer-showroom-sized coffee shop along the river: Milltown Coffee, in Moline, Ill.

Most-informed bartender about voodoo and hoodoo: Travis at the Olde Nola Cookery in New Orleans.

Best museum with school class photos for the entire town: Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center, in Litchfield, Ill.

Best old-timey phone in a hotel room: Too many to choose from. (Really! We had no idea this was a thing.)


Both Sara and Scott will be back in New Orleans for the Online News Association annual meeting from Sept. 12–14.

From Sept 23–24, Scott will be in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Education Writers Association fall Higher Ed Seminar.

Scott also will be headed to the EDUCAUSE annual conference, Oct. 14–17, in Chicago.

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A final photo from our travels: from the base of the Lewis & Clark statue in St. Louis

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus