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Malaise, Ambiguity, and Shifting Power

One thing the pandemic has ushered in is a fundamental re-examination of work. Tens of millions of Americans have quit their jobs in the past year, and workers everywhere it seems are demanding better pay, benefits, and flexibility.

The Great Resignation, as we’ve come to call it.

An observation made this week by a college-going advocate in Northeast Ohio got us thinking about how that term might be applied to the higher ed context. Enrollments across the country are down. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, 938,000 fewer students — a 5-percent drop — enrolled in college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

In an event we held Tuesday in Cleveland, Amy Morona — our reporter with Crain’s thereasked local experts about what they’re hearing from students.

“Generally speaking I think there’s an apathy and malaise around what’s next,” said Michele Scott Taylor, chief program officer at College Now Greater Cleveland, an organization that works to increase college access in the region. “The ambiguity of what’s to come is overwhelming to lots of folks.”

Young people want a future, she added, they want to be doing something productive:

“But I think right now, it’s exhaustion. Overwhelmed. Tired. Let me just get through tomorrow. And I would say it’s really no different than some of us adults, to be quite honest. We’ve all seen this Great Resignation where people are having epiphanies about what are they doing with their lives. I worry that students are going through something similar, and it’s impacting what they’re deciding to do as their next steps post high school.”

So are we seeing some version, then, of a Great Student Resignation?

Twin Pitfalls

The notion resonates, says Jennifer Delaney, associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But “resignation,” she adds, doesn’t fully describe the dynamics. One thing that’s important to emphasize, she said, is how this does not apply to all students equally — and that there’s a negative impact of this “resignation” for many students who are most vulnerable.

That negative aspect (in contrast with the positive outcomes for workers who’ve improved their jobs) is part of what makes the analogy ring hollow to Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for the National College Attainment Network. Not going to college, in fact, weakens people’s standing in the workforce.

“High school graduates who forego education will face twin pitfalls: they won’t have the high-quality degrees, credentials, and experience often necessary to trade up in the workforce, and they will likely face difficulties finding on-ramps back to postsecondary education,” he said.

“The fact that the United States needs more workers with some level of postsecondary attainment hasn’t changed. We cannot afford for individuals and their families, communities, states, or the nation to be foregoing postsecondary education at these rates.”

The Great Student Resignation “sounds catchy and a very effective soundbite,” says Nicholas Hillman, a professor studying higher ed finance and policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But he, too, wrestled with the framing.

“It implies students are somehow giving up on college,” he said. “My understanding is just the opposite. Students have been extremely resilient during the pandemic and I suspect those who leave (or decide not to attend in the first place) likely have priorities/responsibilities at home or work that are keeping them from attending. Still others are likely not attending because of physical and mental health concerns. All of these are viable reasons to not pursue college right now and none of them imply students are giving up or otherwise ‘resigning.’”

A Renegotiation?

None of this, though, seems at odds with the basic points Taylor was making. Maybe it’s just that the term is slightly off?

Earlier this year NPR’s Planet Money argued that instead of calling this The Great Resignation, we should be dubbing it The Great Renegotiation. Most Americans who quit their jobs seem to be doing it to get better jobs, Planet Money said. The bargaining power shifted in workers’ favor.

Is there a way that the power in some way could be shifting toward students right now? 

“If employees are resigning from their jobs because their employers create poor working conditions and pay low wages, which I think is largely the case,” Hillman said, “then the corollary in higher education is something like ‘Students are leaving college because their institutions are not providing a high enough quality of care at an affordable price.’ I think? If so, then there is some truth to this, and it’s been a truth long before the pandemic and will be so long after!”

So, The Great Student Renegotiation?

“Maybe what’s happening is colleges are having an eye-opening moment when they’re realizing/reaffirming that students need a lot more support than just classes and financial aid,” Hillman said. “That’s obviously oversimplified, but my point is that the ‘quality of care’ may be (or needs to be) changing to fully support students.”

— Sara Hebel

+ Watch our discussion with Cleveland leaders about what’s ahead for higher ed there.

Latest on Critical Race Theory in Mississippi

Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, continues to stay on the critical race theory story. This week, she reported, the faculty senate at the University of Mississippi joined others in the state in voting to oppose efforts by lawmakers “that target academic discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.”

“Whatever we do or don’t do will have no influence on the Legislature but is significant for students and faculty around us who are wondering why we haven’t spoken out against it,” one professor said. 

+ Her previous story: Inside Mississippi’s Only Class on Critical Race Theory.

From Open Campus Newsletters

(Courtesy Champlain College)

In Mile Markers, how esports offers an intriguing outreach opportunity for increasingly cash-strapped colleges in more remote parts of the country.

In The Job, a deep dive on tech apprenticeships—who pays for them, who benefits, and the ROI for participants.

In College Inside, pursuing a Ph.D. behind bars and how ethnic studies gives incarcerated young people a new narrative in California.

In latitude(s), Dartmouth College joins a small club of American colleges that offer need-blind admissions and cover full need for international students.

See all of the Open Campus newsletters.

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