Walter Wendler, president of West Texas A&M University.

What Driving 14,000 Miles Taught Walter Wendler

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Walter Wendler has probably dined at more Dairy Queens and Allsup’s in the last two years than most people have in their lifetimes.

To get to know the communities his college serves, the West Texas A&M University president drove 14,000 miles through the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains to meet with students, teachers, and families. He visited more than 130 high schools — and, in every county along the way, he stopped in at least one of those two food chains. (His go-to order? He’s “fairly simple,” he says, so he recommends the vanilla milkshake.)

Before taking the job at West Texas A&M — a regionally oriented university with about 10,000 students — Wendler worked at a number of larger public universities that draw students from across the country. To be an effective leader of a place like West Texas A&M, he needed a deeper kind of knowledge about the region around him.

More than half of students who attend public four-year colleges in the United States go to college within 50 miles of home, according to the Center for American Progress.

On the road, Wendler talked up his university, of course, but he also listened. He asked students, elected officials, and other community members what they thought about higher education — and how West Texas A&M could help.

Here are three things that struck him about those conversations:

Students and families saw value in higher education, but they worried about how to pay for college without being crippled by debt.

  • Wendler gave this advice: Don’t borrow more than you can afford. Don’t borrow anything in your first two years, no matter what. And don’t take on loans that total more than half of what you expect to earn in your first entry-level job out of college.

Many students are delaying college, in part so they can earn and save money for their education.

  • One student Wendler met on campus worked as a certified welder for six years after high school to save money to get her mechanical engineering degree.
  • The Texas Panhandle lags other areas of the state in college attainment. About one in five people age 25 and older have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with at least one in three residents of more urban areas like Central Texas and the Metroplex.

Regional universities should take more pride in their areas rather than push to recruit so much from bigger cities and other regions.

  • Wendler found values in the communities he visited that weren’t as prevalent in other cities and regions where he’s worked. Over the miles, he experienced what he calls “Panhandle pragmatism” — a sense of grit, determination, and working hard to get things done.

— Andrea Klick

First Gen Students, in Their Own Voice

Zipporah with her mom at high-school graduation.

Zipporah Osei saw a gap in the stories being told about first-generation college students, so she started a newsletter, First Gen. We’re excited to announce that, starting next week, First Gen will join our collection of Open Campus newsletters. You can sign up for it here.

Zipporah’s a first-generation college student herself, now in her last year at Northeastern University. She’s from Yonkers, N.Y., and has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Chalkbeat. “I spend a lot of time thinking and ranting about education inequity,” she’ll tell you in introducing herself.

First Gen, as Zipporah describes it, is about what it means to be the first person in your family to go to college — brought to you by and featuring the voices of first-generation college students. Her newsletter covers a range of topics about the highs and lows of being in those shoes, including loneliness and mental health, money and FAFSA-induced headaches, and how families shape student experiences.

“I wanted to be part of telling stories,” Zipporah tweeted, “about what it’s like to navigate the foreign, intimidating world of college.”

Higher Ed’s Social Mission

This winter’s issue of Academe, the quarterly magazine from the American Association of University Professors, is focused entirely on the thing we spend a bunch of time thinking about at Open Campus: “the social mission of higher education.”

Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, writes about “the risks and costs of our quest for social mobility“ — and ends the essay with the story of a recent nursing grad who extols the importance of the liberal arts.

Her words remind us that we do a grave disservice if we focus only on jobs and earnings as the markers for social mobility. Important as those outcomes are for our students, we who are the stewards of higher education — faculty, presidents, provosts, deans, and all colleagues — must find ways to restore respect for the idea of becoming a learned person as a socially valuable outcome of higher education.

From Eva Maria-Swidler, a professor at Goddard College, a piece on ‘The Purge of Higher Education: What do we lose when small colleges close?’

The liberal arts are in danger of following a similar polarized pattern, remaining strong at elite colleges while vanishing at working-class institutions; less privileged students may be driven to focus on what they hope are practical courses of study, but they too thirst for more than just vocational education.

John N. Friedman, a professor of economics and international and public affairs at Brown University and a founding co-director of Opportunity Insights at Harvard University writes about the research center’s mobility report cards:

In its purest expression, the American Dream is the idea that children can work hard and secure a better life than their parents by climbing the economic ladder. In 1940, the promise of the American Dream was all but a foregone conclusion — some 92 percent of children born that year grew up to earn more than their parents. Today, those odds are no better than a coin flip, an astonishingly precipitous decline.

Spotlight

Is She a Wisconsin Resident? That Simple Question is at The Heart of a Former UW-Milwaukee Student’s Downward Slide.

Almond Moone says UW-Milwaukee incorrectly listed her as an out-of-state student despite being a lifelong resident. UWM says she didn’t give needed info. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Subscribing to College and Other Visions of Higher Education’s Future

Squeezed by the demands of employers and students and the need to attract new customers, colleges are launching R&D labs for academic innovation. (The Hechinger Report)

Ohio State Among Universities Targeted Over Bias Against Men

After the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a Title IX investigation, Ohio State University has allowed men to enroll in programs originally meant to expand female participation in male-dominated fields like engineering and data science. (The Columbus Dispatch)

Your 1980s College Playlist About Admissions

Eric Hoover — our friend, an expert reporter on college admissions, and an occasional Twitter wag — asked for some music suggestions this week:

And a final one from Eric:

Training for College Journalists

We’ll be holding workshops at the EWA National Seminar in Orlando in May and will pay travel costs for the students selected to participate. The short application is here, and the deadline is March 16. Please help us spread the word.

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