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.

The Promise of Economic Opportunity

We started a new project back in June focused on covering the connections between education and work. It’s a topic getting a lot of attention in public-policy circles but not one that’s regularly covered on the ground.

With Work Shift, we’re interested in asking what’s working, what’s not, and what might in places around the country. We talked with Elyse Ashburn, our Work Shift editor, about what she’s found as she’s led reporting dedicated to these intersecting worlds.

Q. What has surprised you or struck you the most?

Two things immediately come to mind. First, I’ve been struck by how much the conversation, even in relatively elite circles, has moved beyond the question of whether career outcomes are a valid measure of higher education. Even five years ago, you would have heard a lot more, “Well, higher education is about a lot more than just jobs.” And that’s true, of course. But it’s also true that career outcomes matter a lot for students—especially students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds and are looking to move up the economic ladder. That seems to just be much more widely accepted now.

This feels noteworthy to me, not just because it’s a big shift, but because that now allows higher education to focus on: Okay what career outcomes matter—employment, wages, progression, meaning—and for whom? And how do you go about measuring those things and designing education and support programs with them in mind?

And those questions of “Okay, now what?” are where the reporting at Work Shift is focused.

The second thing is, frankly, kind of obvious—but I think hidden in a lot of conversations around higher education—and that’s the fact that we could do a lot to improve workforce outcomes by focusing on a few key areas.

You see this in analyses like the one Michael Itzkowitz of Third Way recently did on program ROI using College Scorecard data. There are fields like cosmetology that are notorious under-performers, but still enroll a lot of people. And then there are others, like healthcare, that are high-growth, high-potential fields and that justifiably attract a lot of students. But many of the jobs, especially at the certificate and associate level, that are high growth don’t pay much above poverty wages, and that’s a huge challenge for the ROI of allied health programs. Addressing that is, of course, not easy—but even making incremental improvements could improve a lot of lives because the numbers are so huge.

Q. Why does this coverage matter? What’s at stake—for individuals, for the workforce, for communities, for society?

What’s at stake? To me, the fundamental issue is that millions of Americans have been told that education is the way to build a better life. For lots of people, that means a better job—one that can support a family and provides some basic dignity. And there’s tons of data showing that, on average, people are better off getting more education. But there are also a ton of different statistics I could cite—the 36 million people who started a credential but never finished, the 4 in 10 recent graduates who are underemployed—that show that, for millions of people, those average outcomes don’t matter. The current systems aren’t working for them. And those tend to be people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, people who most need education to put them on a different path.

So, to me, those are the stakes: making good on the promise of economic opportunity in this country. And that’s why I’m drawn to this work.

+ Check out our Work Shift coverage. | Follow Work Shift on Twitter. | Email Elyse with ideas and feedback.

++ Good reads from Work Shift:

The Anguish of Runaway Debt

We’ve written before that while we’re arguing about sweeping student-loan forgiveness proposals, we’re already canceling tons of debt — just very, very slowly. That’s what putting so many Americans in various forms of income-driven repayment programs amounts to. But a report out this week argues that the structure of these programs, known as IDR, is really just another debt trap.

These policies focus on creating affordable monthly payments — in some cases as low as $0 — instead of the total debt. Meanwhile, the unpaid interest can be capitalized and added to the loan balance.

As the report from Mark Huelsman at the Student Borrower Protection Center notes, the design of these policies (and many Beltway conversations about them) “treat these snowballing balances as immaterial, a simple technicality that will eventually disappear” as borrowers persist through the repayment period to get the forgiveness promised. Two major problems:

  • So far, programs have been plagued with stories of very few people getting that forgiveness.
  • And less talked about: that runaway debt affects borrowers’ financial choices and their physical and mental health.

“A humane system would not pair the benefit of $0 monthly payment with the horror and financial impact of a balance that grows with no end in sight.”

+ The report: Driving Runaway Debt: How IDR’s Current Design Buries Borrowers Under Billions of Dollars in Unaffordable Interest

Elsewhere on Open Campus

El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus. Photo: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

In El Paso: El Paso Community College enrollment continues to decline. Enrollment for this fall dropped 6% compared with last year. That follows a 10% decrease in enrollment from fall 2019 to the fall of 2020.

In Mississippi: ‘A slap in the face’: In surprise vote, Mississippi higher ed board bans COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The move appears to make it the first higher education governing board in the country to do so.

In latitude(s): What does a high-profile breakup mean for global engagement? One of the most ambitious partnerships in international education abruptly came undone when the National University of Singapore announced that it was ending its pathbreaking joint liberal-arts college with Yale.

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