Revisiting Our Road Trip

Expanding Our Local Network

Our big news this August is that we’ve been awarded a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help us expand our local reporting network to half a dozen more locations this fall.

We’re talking with newsrooms in numerous states and hope to announce new partnerships in the next few weeks. If you want to learn more about becoming a partner newsroom, check out this page or send us a note at info@opencampusmedia.org.

And if you want to be added to our talent pool for reporting jobs at those future partners, reach out to us at jobs@opencampusmedia.org.

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Voices from the Road, a Year Later

A year ago, back when you could do such a thing, we spent eight days driving down the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to New Orleans, to talk with people about college. We wanted to know how college interacted with the lives of regular Americans and with the communities where they live. We wanted to understand more about the perspectives, and the people, that were missing from national conversations.

We called it a Back to School road trip. Now, in a Back to School season unlike any other, I started to wonder what had happened to the people we met. And, in the swirl of news about campuses opening, closing, and reversing course, what different kinds of stories about college we might be hearing if we were back on the road today.

This week I checked back in with three people from the trip. A lot has changed since we struck up conversations as they waited for class at a Quad Cities branch campus, stopped by the Cookie Cart in Minneapolis, or worked the welcome desk at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

But their pragmatism remained just as clear. We hardly talked at all about contact tracing or Covid clusters. Their paths aren’t running through traditional residential campuses. Instead, they talked mostly about college as a tool in their lives, a central force in their stories of the past year of dreams deferred, revised, and pursued at long last, pandemic or no.

Close to Home

If there is anything Anna Dybro made clear last year it was this: she does not intend to graduate with student debt. She still doesn’t. In fact, as she enters her senior year at the Quad Cities campus of Western Illinois University, Anna, who’s 23, has saved enough money to be closing in on another goal: owning a home when she graduates. She put an offer on a house the other day.

At one point this summer, she held an internship, an externship, and two jobs. She’s kept one of the jobs, which is now full-time. It’s been her dream to work with entrepreneurs, she says, and she’s thrilled to be employed by two twenty-somethings who recently started their own property management company. She can apply what she’s learning as a business management major, too.

All of this affirms that she made the right choice to stay close to home for college, Anna says. She’s gotten a quality education at the fraction of the cost of schools with bigger names or grander reputations. “I’m not paying for a quote-unquote brand,” she says, “I’m paying for an education.”

The Way Forward

Phyllis Braxton ended up in Minnesota because of a graduate program. She told us last year how it changed the trajectory of her life, helping her see herself as a CEO. The consulting business she founded — PINK, Pursuing Intercultural Needs & Knowledge — is booming. After the murder of George Floyd, a lot of people and companies, many of whom had never developed plans for diversity and inclusion, are turning to her for help. “The frying pan is really hot right now.”

At the same time, that graduate program, at the University of Minnesota, represents a goal unmet. Phyllis, now 48, never finished her doctorate; with five classes to go, Hurricane Katrina devastated her home town in Mississippi, derailing her studies. This is the year she plans to go back after that degree, a lifelong dream. Because she needs to juggle her business with her classes, she’s enrolling in an online Ed.D. program, at Fielding Graduate University.

She worries some about remote learning; the group environment of a classroom has always helped her navigate a learning disability. But she’s determined. The credential would open up opportunities to become a psychologist, she says, and help her help the leaders who turn to her business even more. “I love learning and being a student and being open to change,” Phyllis says. “It’s the way forward.”

A Purposeful Detour

Jack Bruening had just started his first week at St. Louis Community College when we met him. And he had a plan. He laid out the steps for how his education was going to take him from where he was to his dream job as a park ranger. Since then, Jack, who’s 20, has taken a bit of a detour.

He liked community college, it was eye-opening. But he became “a little flustered,” he says, by the amount of work. The syllabi for classes are informational, he says, but they don’t really convey the full scope of what it takes to succeed.

In November, he left and became a volunteer firefighter. He was looking for a purpose, he says. Now he’s in the middle of a year-long fire science program at Southwestern Illinois College. It’s teaching him how to be a firefighter and it’s getting him college credit. After that, he hopes to return to St. Louis Community College.

Jack misses his job at the Gateway Arch, which effectively ended as covid-19 curtailed visitors. “The city is asleep right now but you know I’ll be there when it wakes back up.” And he hasn’t let go of his park ranger dream. He might be going at a slower pace, he says, “but I’m going to get there.”

— Sara Hebel

Cover Higher Ed in Cleveland

We’re expanding to Ohio. We’re working with Crain’s Cleveland Business — thanks to a grant from the Joyce Foundation — to add a dedicated higher ed reporter to that newsroom. Interested? Here’s the job ad.

Got ideas for what we should be covering in Ohio? Please reach out.

Is State Aid an Effective Lure?

Colorado updated its funding formula to encourage its public colleges to better serve disadvantaged students. But using the budget process to make a difference for those students might not be easy, reports Jason Gonzales, who works with us through our partnership with Chalkbeat Colorado.

Advocates of the new approach say it will shift the state’s colleges away from prioritizing student enrollment and instead focus them on promoting access for, and dedicating resources to, their neediest students.

But the experience of other states shows that performance-based funding can lead to unintended consequences, Jason reports. Research has found that funding models similar to Colorado’s have created competition among schools that has even harmed students.

Colorado may have relatively weak leverage with its public colleges anyway. On average, the state provides less than 30 percent of their revenue.

Read Jason’s story here.

Keep in Touch

We love hearing from you. Share your feedback, tips, and ideas with both of us here.

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And if you want to help us put more higher ed reporters on the beat, here’s where you can make a tax-deductible donation.

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