QuangHuy Bui cuts a client’s hair at Westwood Barbershop in Denver, where Bui has worked since deferring college. Photo: Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

A detour through a barber shop

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.


College Paths Rerouted

Instead of going to college in a pandemic, QuangHuy Bui became a barber.

He’d learned the trade from watching friends and YouTube videos. And he decided to make some money doing that instead of taking classes remotely, a kind of learning he didn’t like. He’s now been trimming hair for almost a year at Westwood Barbershop in Denver. Jason Gonzales, our reporter in Colorado with Chalkbeat, profiled Bui this week.

Lots of people made the same decision as Bui: to put college on hold as covid-19 upended life. Some had new family obligations, others needed to work, many just didn’t want to struggle through a Zoom version of college or lacked the technology to access it at all.

Now, as colleges turn campus life back on, new questions arise: What’s next for those who delayed their education? Who will pick up their old aspirations and who will let them go? What will the long-term impact be?

How Student Plans Are Changing

Some recent surveys have tried to paint a clearer picture of whose college plans have been disrupted, why, and what’s next.

In early May, Strada Education Network, for example, surveyed more than 1,000 graduates from the high-school classes of 2020 and 2021 who said they had intended to enroll in education after high school but decided to postpone their plans. Some of what they found:

  • Almost one-third of Black students were influenced in their enrollment decision by the need to care for a family member, compared with 28 percent of Latino students and 23 percent of white students.
  • Latino students were most likely to be influenced by financial pressure.
  • About one-third said they were weighing a less-expensive program and one-third said they were thinking about staying closer to home. Only 6 percent said they were considering not enrolling in college or another post-secondary program at all.

In another study, America’s Promise Alliance surveyed more than 2,400 high-school students in March and April about the uncertainty of their lives after graduation. Some of those findings: 

  • Four out of five 11th and 12th graders reported that covid-19 has impacted their plans after high school at least a little bit, and almost one in five reported their plans were impacted a great deal.
  • Among those who said their plans have changed, students most commonly reported changes to where they plan to attend college as opposed to saying they would change fields or not go at all.
Getting Unstuck

For Bui, the barber, he’s been happy with the money he’s been able to earn while trimming, fading, and edging hair. He’s discovered what it’s like to work hard, Jason wrote, and put a creative and personal touch on his work, which he hopes to carry into his own business someday.

In many ways, he’s created a good life for himself. Some of Bui’s friends took a year off from school, too, and now have decided not to go.

That could have been Bui. Eventually, though, his bigger goals — owning a barbershop, even a franchise some day — led him back to college.

“I felt like I was stuck making money, paying bills, sleeping it off, rinse, and repeat,” he told Jason. “I just feel like I have a bigger mindset.”

He plans to enroll at the University of Colorado Boulder this fall.

— Sara Hebel

+ More from our local network: Amy Morona in Cleveland explored how colleges in Northeast Ohio are working to get more students back.

++ We want to hear your stories: What unexpected paths have you taken during this muddled year-and-a -half? How has the pandemic changed your educational goals or how you plan to reach them? Email us here.

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Public Money, Private Peers

Pinning down William & Mary can be a little tricky. It’s smaller than most research universities (6,000 undergrads) but has considerably more graduate students than many small colleges (2,500). Officially, its name is The College of William & Mary of Virginia, but now the institution simply refers to itself as William & Mary, no “college” — and prefers to be called “the university” on second reference. So in our American higher ed system, where we’re constantly comparing institutions, figuring out the right group to stack W&M up against is tough.

Maybe that’s why this quote in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch story from a university spokeswoman jumped out so much:

“While William & Mary’s percentage of in-state undergraduate Pell recipients compares favorably among its peers — highly selective private colleges and universities — the university also remains committed to increasing it.”

W&M has been state-supported since 1906.

But it did make us wonder who the university considers its peers. That led to a list from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which defines peers for each of the public institutions in the state. It’s admittedly a little strange (U. of New Hampshire and Dartmouth? Wake Forest and UC-Irvine?) But we took a moment to grab the Pell percentages for that list, just to see how W&M — where just 12 percent of the undergrads receive a Pell Grant — stacks up:

(In fairness, the W&M spokeswoman mentioned in-state Pell recipients, which is up to 17 percent. That’s still below the rate for nearly every one of its public peers.)

+ The Times-Dispatch was covering this report from Education Reform Now: “Higher Education School Finance Inequity and Inadequacy in Virginia”

—Scott Smallwood

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In latitude(s): ‘On the knife’s edge’: More upheaval for the DACA program. A federal judge in Texas has ruled as illegal a program that has protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

In The Job: Is this finally the moment for competency-based education?Advocates argue that the delivery method’s flexibility is good for working students, and that the focus on mastering skills is attractive to employers. They’ve remained mostly boutique offerings until now, but that may be about to change.

In Work Shift: Facing a shortage of early childhood educators, states look to competency-based education. A growing number of colleges and entire states have zeroed in on competency-based education as a way to prepare more workers for the field.

Also in Work Shift: To expand opportunity, rethink what counts as a “successful” career path. In this opinion piece, Julian Alvarez III, the Texas Workforce Commissioner Representing Labor, says that creating more equitable opportunity in his state depends on expanding hands-on training and doing a better job of helping students understand the full range of career pathways.

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