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

Big Commitment, Underwhelming Results

When we talk about higher ed’s role in society, we often talk about colleges’ impact on things like the workforce, the economy, and individual lives. We see them as powerful actors charged with educating citizens and creating knowledge.

That’s a lot of influence. Sometimes we forget to step back, add it all up, and see how all of these roles together put higher ed in a position to really transform the country and to force progress on the big problems of our time. 

How well, then, have colleges served as trailblazers? Nico Portuondo, our Open Campus intern this spring, asked that question, examining higher ed’s record on one critical issue: climate change.

Fifteen years ago, Nico writes, a dozen university presidents urged hundreds of their peers to sign on to a letter that they hoped would transform higher education’s role in advancing sustainability. It was meant to encourage universities to commit to creating a culture of action, including by spurring their own students to become champions of a sustainable society.

Back then, a group of 284 college presidents signed the letter, known as the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The results?

At best, Nico says, they’ve been underwhelming:

  • Only 10 universities have actually reached net-zero carbon emissions. Many more have set carbon neutrality goals, but have put them on an unambitious timeline of 20 years or more.
  • Most of the progress, where it has happened, has been at a small group of wealthy colleges.
  • But even there, Nico reports, universities have mostly done a poor job of incorporating sustainability across the academic curriculum.

“Students who are studying engineering or business or political science, those folks are likely to be in positions of a significant amount of influence potentially on sustainability,” Julian Dautremont, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, tells Nico. “And that’s where the integration of sustainability curriculum has been weaker.”

At most universities, it would be unlikely for a student to be exposed to sustainability without choosing to study it, Nico writes.

Colorado State University offers one example of how universities could do better. There is a major and a minor in sustainability in every college of study at the university, Nico reports. And almost one in five undergraduate courses offer some form of sustainability education.

Why does all of this matter? 

Most of the people in key leadership positions in this country — like members of Congress or the boards of major companies — are going to have earned an undergraduate degree, Dautremont says. 

So higher ed’s failures could have impacts that stretch far beyond than the carbon emissions and waste of campuses, Nico writes. Many worry that an entire generation of young people will be unprepared or unmotivated to deal with the harsh environmental realities heading their way.

+ Read Nico’s story here.

— Sara Hebel

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Even When It’s Not About College …

Sometimes you read stories that aren’t on their face about higher education, but secretly they are. Here are two I noticed this week:

Abolish The Driving Test (Vice): It sounds ludicrous at first, but by the end — even if you’re not convinced — you’ll agree this system is nutty. And then it may make you question a bunch of other testing and credentialing regimes, like the ones that have universities at their center.

Amazon’s HR Dystopia (NYT): A deeply reported, harrowing tale of working at an Amazon warehouse over the last year. The company, the reporting highlights, is built to churn through hourly employees so much that it’s going to need 10 million people to apply each year — about 5 percent of the entire American workforce. What is the role of career training in an environment where the company actively encourages hourly employees to leave? From the story:

Amazon’s founder didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing “a large, disgruntled” work force as a threat, Mr. Niekerk recalled. Company data showed that most employees became less eager over time, he said, and Mr. Bezos believed that people were inherently lazy. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need.” That conviction was embedded throughout the business, from the ease of instant ordering to the pervasive use of data to get the most out of employees.

So guaranteed wage increases stopped after three years, and Amazon provided incentives for low-skilled employees to leave. Every year, Mr. Palmer saw signs go up offering associates thousands of dollars to resign, and as he entered JFK8 each morning, he passed a classroom for free courses to train them in other fields.

A follow up in the Times about why if Amazon is so good at everything else, it’s so bad at HR. (Maybe they want to be?)

++ This gives me a reason to plug one of my favorite newsletters: the Amazon Chronicles by Tim Carmody, who covers the company like a foreign correspondent.

—Scott Smallwood

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Katharina Pierini, a groundskeeper at the U. of California at Santa Cruz, earned a bachelor’s degree 27 years after she first enrolled. (Lluvia Moreno / Special to Lookout Santa Cruz)

In Colorado: “Tenured professors at Colorado public colleges are predominately white” Of the 3,500 professors who have tenure in the state, just 15 of them are Black women. 38 are Black men.

More from Colorado: “Perceptions and reality in college admissions” Students like Ariana Rodriguez didn’t even know what the term “legacy admissions” meant. What they face are cultural and financial barriers to college.

In Northeast Ohio: “How the college ‘transcript trap’ impacts Ohioans” About 222,000 people have unpaid bills, totaling $556 million, to colleges across the state for things such as unpaid tuition, parking tickets, and library fines. Public colleges can withhold students’ transcripts over these unpaid balances.

In Santa Cruz: “From groundskeeper to graduate: Katharina Pierini is finishing a degree she first started on 27 years ago” Pierini first enrolled at UC Santa Cruz in 1994 before life drew her away from her studies.

In The Job: “A lot of last-mile training lacks scale. These programs enroll more students.” The pandemic is adding momentum to new partnerships and models for alternative credentials.

In latitude(s): “A more optimistic picture for international-student enrollment” Forty-three percent of colleges said international applications were above 2020 levels, according to the Institute of International Education. Of that group, about 15 percent reported a “substantial” increase in overseas applicants.

+ Subscribe to any, or all, of our Open Campus newsletters here.


How some college counselors are fighting back against pandemic-induced enrollment decline
How some college counselors are fighting back against pandemic-induced enrollment decline

Thousands of California high school graduates didn’t go to college last year due to the pandemic. A counseling program in Riverside County seeks to address the drop, providing more support for students going from high school to college. (CalMatters)

Seeking diversity, the University of South Florida found a way to attract Black students: Call them
A recruitment effort that grew out of last summer’s protests will bring more students of color to campus. (Tampa Bay Times)

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