Coal is a major economic driver in Craig, Colo., and the plant is scheduled to close by 2030. Photo: Matt Stensland/Chalkbeat

The many (undercovered) roles of colleges

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.


In Case You Missed It

It’s a stormy, sticky summer week here in DC. As we head into August, colleges are preparing for the fall semester — one they had been hoping could be near-normal again. (See this piece from The Chronicle about how their strategies, though, are now starting to change.)

But before we get completely consumed by Back-to-School season, we wanted to stop and take stock of some of our local reporters’ best work this past year.

There are gaps not only in where higher ed is being covered but also in what about higher ed is being covered. Colleges educate students, and they produce knowledge. But they also play other important roles in society that aren’t regularly examined.

Our reporters have shed light over the past months on those other aspects of colleges’ public missions. Here are a few of their stories:

Colleges’ roles in reinventing economies: In rural Colorado, one town is looking to its community college to help survive the end of coal

For decades, coal has helped define Craig, Colo. Residents have staked their livelihoods on it. Jobs can start at about $60,000 a year with no college education required. Everyone knows someone who has worked in the coal power plant or mines. That will soon end.

By 2030, the Craig Station stacks will go quiet as Colorado shifts to renewable energy. Jason Gonzales, our reporter in Colorado with Chalkbeat, examined how Colorado Northwestern Community College is trying to help the city survive, retraining displaced workers and building a diverse job base.

Illustration by Andrea Levy

Colleges’ roles in racial equity: How higher education is failing Black Americans in the Midwest

In three Midwestern cities, there are broad disparities in who is going where in higher education — and who is going anywhere at all. Black Americans in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as the nation, remain underrepresented at our best colleges and overrepresented at some of our worst.

For example:

  • In Cleveland, nearly half of residents are Black, but they made up only 6% of the student body at Case Western Reserve University, the city’s most selective college.
  • In Detroit, nearly 80% of residents are Black, but Black students made up just 15% of Wayne State University’s population.
  • Black students are overrepresented at for-profit colleges — where student debt tends to run high and graduation rates tend to skew low — by more than 12 percentage points in Ohio and more than 15 percentage points in Michigan.

The stark enrollment and attainment gaps have far-reaching impacts, reported Amy Morona, our reporter in Cleveland with Crain’s Cleveland Business. Earning a bachelor’s degree, of course, affects one’s personal earning potential, but research also shows having higher levels of education creates healthier and more engaged citizens.

Danielle Smith, a community health worker in Pittsburgh. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

Colleges’ roles in their own backyards: How Duquesne University is building neighborhood relationships to improve health care

In the Pittsburgh-area communities of Hazelwood and Clairton, Duquesne University is working to tackle health disparities through a new program that embeds community health workers in neighborhood organizations. The health workers become trusted sources and hold office hours to meet with residents.

The university’s efforts to build trust in recent years have been particularly helpful during the pandemic, wrote Naomi Harris, our reporter in Pittsburgh with PublicSource.

If people, for example, might be feeling squeamish about getting the COVID-19 vaccine they might feel more confident if they are going to be getting it from the same group of people who already gave them a shingles shot or pneumonia shot or flu shot, said Michelle Sandidge, a spokesperson for the Housing Authority for the City of Pittsburgh. “Residents kind of felt like there was a comfort level, and it was a trust factor and Duquesne showed up, and they kept coming back.”

Other Open Campus stories worth another read:

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Work With Us!

There’s one more week to apply for our jobs. We’re hiring for five full-time positions, and the deadline is Aug. 6. You can work from anywhere in the U.S.

Please email us with questions and share our jobs with friends and colleagues:

Meet With Us in San Diego

Sara and Alice Myerhoff, our revenue strategy consultant, will be in San Diego for the ASU+GSV Summit from Aug. 9-11. We’d love to see you! Please reach out if you’d like to find time to get together.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Cleveland: ‘Think beyond the bubble’: How Case Western students, neighbors, and alumni are working to improve relations. A grassroots group, Know Your Neighbors, outlined its mission in an Instagram post: Recognize the effects of past institutional decisions. Establish positive relationships. Cultivate mutual pride.

In Colorado: Colorado will allow four-year colleges to grant associates degrees to those who dropped out. Will students go back for a bachelor’s? The state is one of the first to put in place a statewide law like this.

In Work Shift: A new take on certifying ‘soft’ skills—first for veterans, then everyone. A new initiative run by Education Design Lab hopes to crack the code on how to certify high-demand soft skills in a way that is both efficient and credible to employers.

In The Job: How research universities are poised to bulk up on short-term credentials. As governments mull whether to expand subsidies for these programs, much of the attention has focused on community colleges. But don’t forget about universities’ continuing education divisions.

In El Paso: UTEP student becomes youngest composer for major music publishing company. Abeni Merriweather’s piece is an arrangement of Black spirituals that date back to the time of legal slavery in America. She said she was inspired to use spirituals after hearing them in a video game.

In Next: An August of books about college: debt, athletics, and getting in. If you’re into nonfiction, have kids in the college search or going off to college, or work in and around campuses, this is the month for books about higher ed.

In latitude(s): Biden administration calls for a ‘renewed U.S. commitment to international education.’ The United States has never had a coordinated national approach to international education. Now the Biden administration says it will pursue one.

Keep in Touch

Apply to work with us. See all of our openings here.

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