Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

How Americans Feel About College

A Positive Outlook, At Least Before Things Went to Hell

In the before-time — way back in February — New America surveyed Americans about how they feel about higher education. Since then, the think tank acknowledges, the world has entirely blown up, but the data from the fourth annual version of the Varying Degrees survey still offers a baseline to understand how perceptions may shift amidst and after the crisis.

So what’s that baseline?

Americans agree higher ed creates opportunity

  • Four out of five say it brings more job opportunities.
  • 92 percent says it creates upward mobility.
  • Just 17 percent would feel comfortable if their children or close family members didn’t pursue higher education.

Hidden in that positive view though are some racial and ethnic differences. Almost every white and Asian American surveyed (94 and 96 percent, respectively) agreed that higher education offers upward mobility. Black and Latinx respondents were still positive — but less so, with 86 and 87 percent agreeing.

A few other notable findings:

Black Americans and for-profit colleges. As we mentioned in last week’s newsletter, for-profit colleges enroll a disproportionate number of Black students. Perhaps then, it’s little surprise that Black Americans have a more positive view of the sector: 70 percent of them said for-profit colleges contribute to a strong workforce (just 56 percent of white Americans said that). And nearly half of Black Americans think for-profit institutions are for “people like them” (just 31 percent of white respondents said that).

The New America report doesn’t pull punches on why this is a problem: “This is deeply concerning, given the notoriously poor outcomes of for-profit colleges.”

Partisan unity — and division. The New America survey reported more support from Republicans for higher education than a much discussed 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center. That one found that 59 percent of Republicans thought colleges had a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. New America asked the same question and found almost the inverse, with 60 percent saying colleges had a positive effect. Maybe survey design is the cause of the different findings, or maybe, as the New America experts suggest, “Republicans’ perceptions of higher education is more nuanced than can be captured in the two surveys.”

But there was a huge partisan split on how we should pay for college. Sixty percent of Republicans said students should pay because they personally benefit; whereas 80 percent of Democrats said the government should pick up more of the bill because it’s good for society.

P.S. Need more college-related surveys? The Charles Koch Foundation partnered with College Pulse to survey 5,000 students about the impact of coronavirus pandemic on their education.

One top finding: More than 9 in 10 students think they should pay less in the fall if only online learning options are available. And nearly two thirds think it should be “much less.”

We’re not in the prediction game but we suspect 9 in 10 students may be disappointed.

— Scott Smallwood

A Tough Fight Against Summer Melt

Summers have always been a pivotal time for high-school graduates planning to attend college. Even in the best of years, up to one-third of those students never actually get to campus when fall arrives — a problem often referred to as “summer melt.”

In those months between graduation and orientation, students get tripped up by lost paperwork and missing documentation. Sometimes their aid packages fall short or their family circumstances change.

Now the challenges of transitioning to college are magnified because of covid-19. As the economy implodes, families’ financial struggles are deepening. Some students face new responsibilities at home. At the same time, the traditional college experience is being upended. For some students, online learning is almost impossible due to technology gaps.

Even with computer access, some students struggle to learn through remote instruction, adding another barrier, says Daryl Curry, the mentor coordinator for Oasis Center, a Nashville-based organization that supports students and families with crisis intervention and college access.

“Some of the complaints from my former students were when they got shifted to online learning that they didn’t know what to do,” he says. “They felt they weren’t given almost anything other than deadlines.”

What’s Different Now

Student engagement is essential during the transitional period to college. But the need for regular interaction and communication has never been more important than it is now, says Evelyn Garcia Morales, executive director at Fulfillment Fund Las Vegas.

For the past two years Fulfillment Fund Las Vegas, a college program designed to guide high-school students through college, has used text message campaigns to reach students. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, they are ramping up other forms of communication, too. Those include:

  • Webinars. Zoom calls and Google Hangouts have been helpful for preserving at least some group interactions.
  • Social media. Student engagement is all about meeting students where they are, she says. With even more happening virtually now, she, too, is reaching out more on social media.
  • Good old-fashioned phone calls. The personal touch of phone calls has helped get students’ attention amid all of the virtual communication they are bombarded with during quarantine. “We find there is a need for students to schedule one-on-ones,” Morales said. It has helped to personalize communication in the absence of face-to-face meetings.
Derailed Plans

A lot is uncertain about who will show up on campus this fall — both among new students and returning students. And we’re already seeing signs of how covid-19 is derailing college plans.

Data from the Los Angeles Community College District — whose nine colleges enroll more than 200,000 students per year — show that online learning hindered the trajectory of many students, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More than 32,000 students withdrew from classes this spring, a 17-percent increase from the number who withdrew last spring, the Times reported. And about 2,000 students could not continue their hands-on coursework, in fields like biotechnology and career programs like auto mechanics.

On top of that, a survey completed by more than 9,000 of the district’s students found that only three-quarters had regular access to a computer, the Times said, and one-third lacked a quiet study space. Close to half were also dealing with a job loss or reduction of work hours.

— NaTavia Williams

On the Air

Zipporah Osei, who writes our First Gen newsletter, appeared on the EdSurge Podcast this week: A First-Gen College Student Talks ‘Fauxmencement,’ Loan Debt and Advice for Educators

“Challenge your assumptions about what the college experience is like for your students. I think people make a lot of assumptions based on what their own experiences are like or what the ‘traditional student’ is. But there are students of all backgrounds — not just first-generation students — who have different challenges and are experiencing college in very different ways. And so if you come at it with flexibility from the start, I think you’re better off.”

Plus, Sara was a guest on Karen Weaver’s podcast about college athletics, talking about the challenges facing regional public universities.

International Students & Race

The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed have captured headlines across the country, and around the world. How are these events viewed by international students, who may have an incomplete understanding of America’s history with race and a different concept of racial identity based on their home culture? For some students, coming to the U.S. is the first time they are seen as “black” or “brown” or “Asian.”

Join Karin Fischer for a latitude(s) coffee hour next Wednesday, July 1, at 2 p.m. Eastern time. She’ll lead a conversation about how colleges should talk with international students about race and the best practices for integrating multicultural and social-justice education into programming for students from overseas. Register for the free event here.

One of Karin’s guests will be Ivonne M. García, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at The College of Wooster.

Welcome to Megan

Megan Sauer, a graduate student studying journalism at Northwestern University, joined us this week as our second summer editorial intern. We’re excited to be working with her. Reach out to Megan with tips and story ideas here.

Here’s Megan, with a note of introduction:

Family reunions were anything but relaxing when I was a kid. As the oldest, I wrote, directed and starred in plays with my younger sister and cousins (who refused to remember their lines). We toured venues like my grandparents’ living room and the lawn outside our cabin at Lake Skegemog — until my mother kindly suggested my audience’s and actors’ attention spans wouldn’t support a 20-page script.

I eventually realized my family and friends had lives outside of listening to me talk all day, but my eagerness to connect with others never wavered. I continued to scribble every thought in blank storybooks and my phone’s notes app, so a good idea never went to waste. This enthusiasm led me to Adrian College, a small liberal-arts school in Michigan that allowed me to continue my figure skating career as well as build my writing arsenal.

While writing for my college’s newspaper, marketing department and development office, I found telling stories about people overcoming obstacles most rewarding. I spent another year in marketing before deciding to pursue a master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. My time as a Wildcat has given me the opportunity to report on disparities in automatic voter registration, sustainable fashion, and, of course, synchronized skating.

I’m so excited to be joining Open Campus’s team and look forward to connecting with people who are dedicated to accessibility in higher education.

Recommendation Corner

Why Venture Capital Doesn’t Build the Things We Really Need
The funding model that made Silicon Valley a global hub excels at creating a certain kind of innovation — but the pandemic has exposed its broader failures. (MIT Technology Review)

The University Is Like a CD in the Streaming Age
Like the entertainment industry, colleges will need to embrace digital services in order to survive. (The Atlantic)

Keep in Touch

We love hearing from you, so please keep sharing your feedback and ideas. Let us know what kinds of stories, data, and information would help you navigate this time.

And we could use your help! Please share this newsletter with others who might be interested. They can sign up here.

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