(Photo of New Orleans by Scott Webb on Unsplash.)

What a City Needs

In this sprawling, diverse country, you can know the big trends but miss a lot of stories.

The national data lays out contours of narratives: More people are earning college degrees but inequities remain. One in six American adults has student-loan debt. Many jobs go unfilled because too few workers have the degrees or credentials required.

But the aggregate numbers can’t tell you much about the why. What stops people from going to college? What makes it hard to stay? What would it take to be able to go back? And the averages leave out a whole lot about the who.

To learn more about the impact of these trends in individual lives — and to figure out which obstacles loom largest and where interventions might matter most — it helps to zoom in to a region, a state, a city.

Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about New Orleans. It’s where we ended our road trip down the Mississippi last summer, and it’s where we’ll now be headed back this spring.

We’re partnering with The Lens, a nonprofit news organization there, to learn from the city’s residents about the barriers they face to getting the education they need and how colleges can serve them better. Our work is being funded by a Community Network Grant that we received this week from the Facebook Journalism Project. We’ll be using it to hold a series of neighborhood forums and create a guide to help New Orleans residents navigate college.

Local Concerns

One thing you see when you start to look at New Orleans’ numbers is just how big of a role its colleges play in educating the city. Many Americans enroll at campuses close to home, but in New Orleans nearly two-thirds of residents who go to college stay in the city to do so, according to this report by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. How well these institutions do or do not meet local needs, then, can have an especially deep impact.

The disparities here are also striking. College-going rates are going up. But in New Orleans, as elsewhere, wide gaps remain — by race and economic status — in who enrolls, who stays, and who has a degree. Among the city’s adults, more than 67 percent of white residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree but less than 23 percent of black residents do. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans’ 400,000 residents are black.

Erin Wheeler, the executive director of College Beyond, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans that helps people get to and through college, worries about how to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. More than 25 percent of New Orleans families live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of all American families.

What’s Missing

The one thing she thinks would help the most: a more personalized approach to education.

Schools are getting better at helping students aspire to college, at requiring everyone to fill out federal financial-aid forms. But then what? Who talks to them about the rest?

To stick with college and to then succeed in careers, Erin says, people need more one-on-one coaching: someone to help them understand the purpose of their education, how to find and create support systems, how to pick majors and assess the kinds of jobs they really want. Otherwise, people grow disillusioned because college isn’t what they asked for or what they thought it would be.

“It’s that conventional wisdom that people are missing,” she says. “And that really is a personal conversation.”

— Sara Hebel

If you’re in New Orleans, or know people there we should reach out to, send us a note. We’d love to connect.


Trustees Growing Concerned About Higher Ed

More than 40 percent of trustees are now very concerned about the future of higher education, up 14 points from last year, a survey found. (Inside Higher Ed)

University of Minnesota Mines China Connection But Worries About Future

Chinese students now make up 45 percent of all international students on the university’s campuses, providing a major cash infusion. But the U’s success recruiting students from China is facing fresh threats. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Students Worry as California’s Online Community College Confronts Offline Woes

California’s first-in-the-nation virtual campus has 450 students, no full-time faculty, no CEO and no political champion. What will Calbright’s future be? (CalMatters)

Fewer Kansans Are Going To K-State. Don’t Expect That To Change Soon.

The number of Kansas residents enrolled at K-State hit a 31-year low last fall, and despite the university’s efforts to reverse a five-year downturn in overall enrollment, the numbers are only expected to worsen. (The Manhattan Mercury)

Don’t Send ACT/SAT Scores to Northern Illinois U. It Just Went ‘Test-Blind.’

Many colleges have adopted test-optional policies, which allow applicants to decide whether to submit ACT or SAT scores. But Northern Illinois has gone a step further. Starting in the fall of 2021, the university’s new “test-blind” policy will cut tests out of the picture. (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Our Other Newsletters

This week from Karin Fischer in latitude(s): What does China’s arrest of a student for what he posted while in the U.S. say about the government’s reach?

In his latest Next newsletter, Jeff Selingo talks about the Love Boat, Walmart, and what we really mean by “higher education.”

On the Road

Sara flew back home Thursday morning to visit family. Home, you would definitely know if you’ve ever met her, is Indiana. As part of a travel game we play, she texted the advertisements for colleges in the Indianapolis airport:

The Indianapolis airport wants you to go to college.

Southern Indiana is Shaping Role Models. IUPUI is A Community Where You Belong. Indiana Wesleyan is your Destination. And Ball State? They Fly.

All of which reminds us of the amazing poem made out of college tag lines by our former colleague Steve Kolowich. “Change Your Life. Start Here.”

Keep in Touch

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