Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we try to highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this, you can sign up for your own copy here.

Debt Is a Personal Story

A Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University thinks about his student debt every time he walks into the grocery store.

A former Westwood College student, whose for-profit institution closed before she earned a degree — but not before she took on plenty of debt — lives with her dad, can’t buy a car, and has a phone full of calls from collectors.

A nonprofit employee in Denver expects to carry a $440-per-month student-loan payment into retirement. She figures she might just die in debt.

Student-loan debt, our reporters in Colorado and Pittsburgh heard, shapes lives. Borrowing money for college can open up opportunities — and it can narrow them, too, for those who struggle to pay it back. Debt, they wrote, brings people to tears. It makes them feel trapped. It brings them shame.

“I had this dream, and I was told at an early age that education was the key. It was the ticket,” one woman told Naomi Harris, the higher ed reporter for our partner PublicSource. “But no one informed me how to do that so that I was not paralyzed.”

Dozens of people shared their experiences with student debt in response to separate requests from Naomi and from Jason Gonzales, the higher ed reporter at our partner Chalkbeat Colorado. They wanted to understand more about how the debates in Washington could affect lives in their communities.

Both Jason and Naomi say the stories they heard helped them see just how complex the issue of student debt is and just how deeply, and differently, it affects people.

“College is still a step toward upward mobility,” Naomi says, “but there are many problems with financing higher education that can pull students down.”

Scraping By

For Jason, one story that stood out was Shanique Broom’s. She’s on the verge of earning her doctorate at the University of Denver. Along the way, she’s racked up more than $280,000 in debt.

In his story, Jason summed up the conundrum of many people he and Naomi heard from. They’ve been told all their lives that education is the path to prosperity, but no one really explained the costs or the choices they had in paying. And now they’re stuck:

“It’s baffling for Broom that bettering yourself comes at such a price — she felt she needed education to get a better job to avoid the fate of so many in her neighborhood,” Jason wrote. “Yet her debt forces her to scrape by.”

Broom, Jason says, is the example of a student doing everything they can to advance themselves. She’s a first-generation college student who went to Central Michigan University to escape poverty. While she was there she took out loans to replace work so she could stay in school full time and help care for her mom. But now she’ll be paying back the debt for most of her life.

“The question came up so many times: Who is college really for?” Jason says. “How do we ask students to take on massive sums of debt to advance their lives and then leave them in a worse place? It’s a question Ms. Brown’s story left me with.”

— Sara Hebel

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Our Obsession with Merit

The American dream is a concept brimming with idealism. It’s embedded with this idea that anyone, from any background, can rise up and make their own fortune.

We prize a merit-based system of education that rewards people who, as we often say, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But what are the consequences of that? Should we be allocating so much opportunity by measures of merit? What does that even mean, who does that benefit, and how does it affect equality?

We’re partnering with EdSurge to produce a limited-run podcast about the idea of merit in education. The stories will unpack popular narratives, examine assumptions, and explore experiments in distributing educational opportunity differently.

In our first episode, Jeff Young, managing editor of EdSurge, explores where the phrase “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” comes from — and how it went from ludicrous joke to national aspiration. Listen here and subscribe to get future episodes.

De Facto Segregation

Virginia’s higher education system, one of the oldest and most-prestigious in the country, suffers from de facto desegregation. That’s the conclusion of a new policy brief from Education Reform Now, an advocacy group focused on how public education can better serve low-income students and students of color.

Inequities in college-going patterns in Virginia are not just a question of who goes to college, the report says, but where they go. This Twitter thread highlights some of the report’s findings.

One of the most striking facts is this: Washington and Lee University enrolled just four Black freshmen from the entire state of Virginia this past fall. In 2018, it enrolled one. There were more than 18,000 Black high-school graduates in Virginia each year, the report notes.

Among public universities, only three enroll Black and Hispanic students at a rate similar to their makeup in Virginia’s population:

The full report’s here.

+ Read Amy Morona’s story about similar issues elsewhere: how Black Americans in the Midwest remain underrepresented at our best colleges and overrepresented at some of our worst.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Mississippi’s college employees are among the lowest-paid in the South, Molly Minta reports this week. When the state budget provided enough for a 1 percent across-the-board pay raise, some were insulted.

“Something is better than nothing,” one university employee told Molly. “But it’s effectively nothing. It’s not even a tank of gas for me.”

In Pittsburgh, Naomi Harris explores one university’s efforts to tackle health disparities, exacerbated by COVID-19, by building neighborhood relationships and serving people where they live.

One of the most common questions Karin Fischer hears is this: Is the growth in international students in the U.S. coming at the expense of Americans? In latitude(s) this week she writes about a new study that counters that misconception.

In The Job, Paul Fain writes about rising interest in alternative credentials and non-degree paths to jobs. The key question, he says, is whether different hiring models will open doors to well-paying, satisfying careers or track Black, Latino, and lower-income people into unstable, low-wage jobs.

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UC explains admissions decisions in a record application year
More than 200,000 students were vying for about 46,000 freshmen spots at University of California campuses. (

The Central Valley has a college graduate problem. Can this Fresno State program help?
The university is reaching out to former students who were close to graduating when they dropped out, hoping to help them come back and earn a degree. (

Once a point of pride, Louisiana’s colleges found their affordability and budgets diminished
Only 33.6% of Louisiana students would have sufficient means to pay for college in-state, according to a state audit. (

Keep in Touch

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