Row houses in East Baltimore. (Anne Ditmeyer/Creative Commons)

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.

Rational Choice?

Choice sits at the center of our higher-ed system. Should you go to a small college or a big state university? Should you major in biology or engineering or political science? What’s that nearby program going to cost compared with the one across town?

No surprise, then, that among policy wonks, foundations, and some legislators, giving prospective students better information about education outcomes has become the holy grail. That way, the theory goes, everyone can make a better decision. 

What if, though, this whole system is more complicated? What if some people, often from low-income families, are making rational decisions to choose programs that don’t lead to the best returns in the long run?

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research posits just that. The authors, using a combination of deep interviews with hundreds of young people in poor neighborhoods in Baltimore and national survey data, find that some low-income students anticipate shocks that may derail their education. “They thus opt for shorter, more convenient, less challenging and, often, less lucrative educational programs that they expect to be able to finish and believe will lead to a job.”

Essentially, if life has already thrown you a bunch of curveballs — having a parent in prison, getting evicted from your apartment, seeing a sister get killed — you may rationally figure that more such shocks are ahead. Signing up for a four-year bachelor’s degree that you’ll have to drop out of could make less sense.

Elyse Ashburn, the editor of Work Shift, drew attention to the paper this week. She talked with Nicholas Papageorge, an economist, co-author of the report, and associate director of the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University.

“When you see people doing things that don’t pass the cost-benefit analysis, there’s a tendency to say they’re wrong about something, they don’t have the right information or beliefs, or they’re impatient.”

But often, Papageorge said, some factor—such as the odds of life events keeping them from ever graduating—is just missing from the analysis.

Yes, more information about the value of degrees would be great. But Papageorge said he didn’t get a sense that young people in these very poor neighborhoods of Baltimore fail to see the value of college. 

“When you talk to these kids, they tend to say that if you can get through a four-year degree—which they don’t think they can do—you’re going to be rich. So if anything, they may be overestimating the returns.”

Colleges increasingly are providing “wrap-around supports” to help students with mental health, food and housing insecurity, and transportation. Emergency grants got more attention during the pandemic as well, a recognition, Elyse points out, “that a flat tire or overdue childcare payment can easily spiral into missing work, missing classes, and being forced to drop out.”

Papageorge said many of these students feel their lives aren’t stable enough for college: “It’s their sense of how together everything has to be to be successful at college.”

So maybe the information students need is not just graduation rates or future salaries but the assurance that colleges are willing to help when the inevitable shocks arrive.

—Scott Smallwood

+ Check out more coverage of the connections between education and work at Work Shift.

++ And subscribe to The Job, Paul Fain’s newsletter that tackles these issues every week.

Our Growing Revenue Team

Lauren Wiley and Jalen Lee

We’re thrilled to welcome two new members to our revenue team this week.

Lauren Wiley is our new director of local development and revenue. Before moving into jobs in the nonprofit sector, she began her career as a local reporter.

“As a former journalist, I am a strong supporter of local news as a key component to the health of our communities and nation,” Lauren says. “When we lose that source of common knowledge, we lose our connection to each other.” 

Lauren’s been working in nonprofit education journalism, specifically, since 2014, first at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and most recently at Chalkbeat. 

“Both education and journalism mean so much to me and have shaped my life in amazing ways,” she says. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to help fuel the growth of quality, local higher education reporting across the country, along with in-depth reporting on higher ed topics that need more attention such as issues of racial equity and education in our prisons.”

Jalen Lee is our new development associate. He’s worked in research and communications roles for state and federal agencies and has experience in nonprofit organizations, most recently as a special projects coordinator for Issue One, which works to strengthen American democracy.

“Higher education reporting is just not a priority, but it should be,” Jalen says. “To me, college is not just about studying and then earning a really expensive piece of paper. It serves the community around it in incredibly vital ways.”

It also can be a transformational experience, he adds. “College is where I discovered my passion for research, where I met my closest friends, and where I learned how to leave the world a better place than how I found it.”

Speaking of Money …

We’re participating in NewsMatch again this year, a national program designed to strengthen nonprofit newsrooms like ours. Between now and the end of the year, your donation to Open Campus will be doubled thanks to the program. Here’s where to give.

Thank you for supporting our work to bolster local news and to improve the coverage Americans get about college. We’re grateful for you!

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Enrollment dipped at many of Northeast Ohio’s colleges, including Baldwin Wallace U.

In Northeast Ohio: Fall enrollment drops for majority of Northeast Ohio colleges. An analysis of the 26 higher-education institutions in the Crain’s colleges and universities full digital list saw about a 3.8 percent decrease in combined undergraduate and graduate full-time equivalent enrollment since the same period in 2020.

In latitude(s): A year of unprecedented declines. International enrollments fell 15 percent in fall 2020, the largest one-year tumble in the 72 years the Institute of International Education has been publishing the annual international-student census.

In Work Shift: What gets adults to return to education? Here’s what they say. North Carolina and other states are working to get adult learners back in college. EdNC talked with a dozen of those learners about what convinced them to enroll.

Also in Work Shift: There’s no ‘adult learner store.’ Five community colleges in North Carolina recently piloted a jobs-oriented campaign to bring in adult learners. The lessons learned have implications for other colleges.

In The Job: Bootcamps grow up. The sector is expanding rapidly. Amid a boom in offerings by ed-tech companies, several freestanding bootcamps are seeking accreditation, a key step toward being able to accept federal student aid.

In Mississippi: The racial and economic impact of Mississippi’s proposed financial aid program. The proposal would change how thousands of students pay for college — and whether they even go.

In Next: Could the rise in income inequality be to blame for the rise in tuition? Yes, one expert says. Most colleges are stuck in a vicious financial cycle right now.

Keep in Touch

Double your impact. It’s end-of-the-year fundraising time! All donations now through the end of the calendar year will be doubled thanks to NewsMatch. Help us build our local higher education reporting network here.

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