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.

Stories We Tell About Admissions

College admissions is a mystery to most people. Many of them have this sense that it’s harder than ever to get in (Some places? Sure. Overall? Not at all). Plus, public depictions focus on the tiny sliver of colleges that reject most of their applicants. (See this amazing compilation of the trope “Ivy League for Everyone” from comic books and movies and TV shows.)

Race, plenty of Americans seem to think, plays a big role in who gets in. And a substantial portion see White people at a disadvantage.

That’s one of the findings in a new working paper from distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Economists from Harvard and Boston Universities used a large survey of white and Black Americans (and teenagers) to examine perceptions about racial gaps and their causes.

I pulled out just that college question:

You can see that this may be more of a Democrat-Republican divide than a Black-white split — also that the partisan gap starts young.

  • 71 percent of white Republican teenagers believe white college applicants face a disadvantage.
  • Just a third of white Democratic teenagers believe that.

As James Murphy explained on Twitter this week, this is not how college admissions works.

First, he noted, people are not really talking about "getting into college" — even if they think they are (see TV trope above). They're not talking about the thousands of colleges in the country but just the couple hundred that turn away lots of applicants.

Second, he wrote, "this belief that a white person is 'less likely' to get into colleges might be true all things being equal, but all things are not equal. That's kind of the point of holistic admissions. GPA and test scores do not tell any applicant's whole story."

His final point: "We proponents of race-conscious admissions need to do a better job of explaining college admissions and fighting to make admissions more equitable."

—Scott Smallwood

+ Bonus public misperception: Respondents estimated that 42 percent of the country is Black. It's 13.

++ The paper: Perceptions of Racial Gaps, their Causes, and Ways to Reduce Them.

Still Dying of Despair

One more NBER paper this week — in which Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton return to their groundbreaking work on "deaths of despair." Such deaths — from suicide, drugs, and alcohols — continue to rise in the U.S., and the increase is largely borne by those without a four-year college degree. Case and Deaton have updated and expanded the analysis, first reported in 2015, as well as responded to some of the criticism of their work, and examined what role the pandemic might be playing. The charts are still so stark you can't believe your eyes. 

That version comes from Christopher Ingraham, formerly of the Washington Post, who now uses his newsletter, The Why Axis, to unpack data. As he explains:

"We’ve been told, over and over, that low wages and a porous social safety net are simply the price we pay for the freedom to buy cheap stuff. But here’s the truth laid bare by Case and Deaton’s data in the chart above: for the Serious People selling us this agenda, wages kept going up and the safety net was never an issue. College degree holders got to reap all the benefits of our cheap-stuff economy while being largely insulated from the despair and misery that comes with it."

And what about the pandemic? Case and Deaton were surprised to find it didn't get any worse. As they write, that's not saying much:

"What is much more surprising is the finding that the relative mortality rates, the ratio of mortality rates for those without and with a BA, changed hardly at all from 2019 to 2020. While it was true that COVID was much more likely to kill those without a college degree, the relative mortality rates were the same as before the pandemic. It was bad in the pandemic, but it was bad before, a stunning measure of the mortality consequences of not having the degree, even in “normal” times."

+ At The Chronicle, we worked on this excellent story by Karin Fischer and Sarah Brown that jumped off an earlier Case and Deaton paper to examine how a lack of education was becoming a public-health crisis in one rural corner of Missouri: A Dying Town.

Colorado's Paradox

When you cover higher education in Colorado one issue you immediately hear about is something often called the “Colorado Paradox.” What that essentially means is this: the state does a really great job of attracting people with college degrees to move there but not a very great job of getting the people who grew up in Colorado to, and through, college.

In the coming months, Jason Gonzales, our reporter in Colorado with Chalkbeat, will focus on examining the large disparities in college-going and graduation rates among different groups of students there. Where are the gaps the most alarming? Where are they improving? What more can be done to bridge the divides?

Right now, Jason is digging into data about Hispanic men and how many graduate from the state’s public colleges. The answer? Far fewer than you would hope, he says. At Metro State University of Denver, for instance, just 18 percent of the Hispanic men finish their bachelor’s degree in six years.

In his Beyond High School newsletter this week, Jason gives a preview of his reporting, and he talks about how these issues are personal to him. When he went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, just 6 percent of students were Hispanic. His freshman year, he says, he can’t recall seeing another Hispanic student on his dorm floor.

During his sophomore year, Jason faced a fork in the road: Should he give up on college? Read Jason's account about what, and who, helped him decide not to quit.

+ Sign up for Jason’s newsletter at Chalkbeat.

++ More coverage from Jason: Colorado’s flagship struggles to enroll low-income students. That has consequences for social mobility.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In The Job: Free college for workers. Amazon last week joined Walmart and Target in offering free college as a benefit to its 750,000 front-line employees in the U.S. Like its fellow retail giants, Amazon views college benefits as a crucial hiring and retention tool. “Career progression is the new minimum wage,” Amazon's vice president of workforce development told the Wall Street Journal.

In Work Shift: Companies lean in to remote internships. Companies had virtual internships thrust upon them last year. Now, large numbers say those internships are here to stay even once the pandemic subsides. We talked to colleges and businesses—from a small health-care company to Fortune 500s like Discover—about what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what’s in store this year and beyond.

In Colorado: The pandemic hurt Colorado community college fall enrollment. But not as much as leaders feared. Enrollment, though, still remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

In Mississippi: All but three Mississippi community colleges saw enrollment declines this fall. About 64,000 students are attending community college this semester, a drop of around 3,500 students from last fall.

In Next: What the fall of 2020 means for the autumns ahead. Unlike the Great Recession, which knocked even wealthy colleges off their footing, the pandemic is only accelerating a great separation in higher ed. The rich got richer over the last 18 months. For some colleges, it will be very difficult to play catch-up.

In latitude(s): After an acquittal, more questions about the government’s investigation of academic espionage. A federal judge has acquitted a former University of Tennessee professor accused of hiding his ties to China after the case against him crumbled. 

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