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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood
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.
Boca Chica to Mars
Something lost. Something gained.
Perhaps that, Nick Fouriezos writes, is the story of Elon Musk’s impact on the Rio Grande Valley. The world’s richest man arrived in the remote, mostly Hispanic region two years ago, promising that his interstellar dreams could be a rocket ship to prosperity for his neighbors, too.
The Valley’s largest population centers regularly rank among the poorest U.S. cities. Fewer than 1 in 5 of the region’s residents 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 1 in 3 nationwide.
So how much could Musk’s arrival — and his decision to base his SpaceX South Texas Launch Site here, planning to launch rockets to Mars — really change educational aspirations and career opportunities for the Valley’s long-time residents?
That’s what Nick went to Brownsville to learn. In his story — which was co-published this week by USA Today — we hear from concerned locals who describe SpaceX’s presence as “exploitative” and “destructive.” And from the mayor, who says his city is lucky to have a generational figure like Musk in its midst: “We’re trying to make Brownsville a destination city.”
What’s clear is that SpaceX is reverberating through residents’ lives, in tangible and mixed ways:
Mary Solis’ high-school students hope having a flagship company for the region will create better jobs. One changed his career goals from law enforcement to mechatronic engineering — calling it a “second chance,” boosted with the rise of SpaceX. Solis, the principal, says that until now, many people in the Valley have felt like they only have four career options, and three of them come with a gun.
Moises Castillo, an astrophysics Ph.D. student, stayed close to home to study at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and wonders if faith in space could keep others believing in the Valley, too. SpaceX, he says, has given people hope but he hasn’t seen that rewarded yet. None of his STEM friends have gotten full-time SpaceX jobs. Two interned at the company but are no longer there. Another briefly worked at SpaceX … as a barista.
Immanuel Edinbarough, an engineering professor at the local university, told a student to show up at a SpaceX job fair. He did, and then dropped out of college months later to take a robotics job making nearly six figures for SpaceX. The professor is trying to persuade the former student to come back to school and finish his degree as he works: While a dream job can be taken away in a moment, a degree cannot.
What’s left behind
Nick was struck by a number of things as he reported in the Rio Grande Valley. One, he says, is how quickly things are changing in Brownsville.
He’d been there before, back in February 2020, just before the pandemic. Inflationary and gentrification concerns you might not expect in a remote region like the Valley, Nick says, are playing out there, too. Rents, for example, have soared by nearly 20% in the last year alone. And space really has taken over Brownsville, with murals of Musk, the stars, and rocket ships seemingly everywhere.
“If Musk’s city of Starbase becomes a reality, the disparity will become even more apparent. It’s a fascinating scene, but it also begs the question of what is lost, which I think is the essential question of the piece — the interplay between longing for change for the better, while coping with what will be left behind in the process.
It’s actually the question of all science, of the very rocket fuel that Musk wants to ride to Mars, right? Energy can neither be created nor destroyed — it can only be converted from one form to another. There is an essential, beautiful, Mexican-American culture in the Valley now, which is already being lost, and which will very likely only remain as a shade of its former self, as has happened in Austin.”
Failure as inspiration
Another thing that Nick says he thought a lot about was, as he puts it, “the curious case of Musk.” He’s a larger than life figure. And a character study of him offers surprising lessons, Nick says.
One, which didn’t make it into the story, was something that the university’s engineering professors mentioned. Nick says that the professors taught him how failures were a key asset of Musk’s interstellar strategy.
“While most news coverage focused on the fiery explosions of each ‘failed’ launch, Musk sees each one as a way to get to success faster: The data obtained exposes flaws faster than a careful, measured, decade-long approach of engineering would. … To the professors, this was novel, because it was the exact opposite of what they taught in their classes — it flies in the face of a modern trend toward cautious engineering that focuses on bringing a perfect product to market.
When asked why he thought he could build a spaceship or an affordable electric vehicle, Musk is frank with interviewers: He didn’t think so. In fact, he thought failure was far more likely than not. But his attitude was that some things should be tried, even if they won’t succeed. It’s an attitude that the principal Mary Solis — a woman with a life an unimaginable distance from Musk’s, even if only a few miles from him physically — found inspiring and meaningful, especially since Musk himself struggled as a student.”
From Open Campus newsletters
The power of a single book Most prisons have some kind of library, but incarcerated people report that the texts are outdated or they have limited access to them. And many prisoners say that their interest in learning, and in some cases, desire for education, started by reading a single book. Dozens of prison book programs work to fill the gaps. (Sign up for College Inside by Charlotte West.)
Burger refills and broadband access Digital testing offers some promise for rural students, but there are hidden rules — and continued broadband challenges — that hamper access. (Sign up for Mile Markers by Nick Fouriezos.)
Guardrails for opening up Pell Grants to short-term programs What are effective quality checks that could get enough bipartisan support in Congress? (Sign up for The Job by Paul Fain.)
Work Shift explainers
Over at Work Shift — our digital hub for news, analysis, and opinion focused on education and the workforce — we’ve been exploring the new and growing pathways into good tech jobs.
Through a series of explainers, Work Shift is spelling out how different models work, what’s changing, who pays, and what the benefits are for people and for employers in these specific areas:
- Tech apprenticeships—which grew more than 41 percent in the past year
- The evolution of computer science degrees
- And coming soon: on-ramps and bootcamps, as well as employer-based training.
Why does this matter? Here’s how Paul Fain answers in The Job this week:
Just about every industry is heavy on tech these days—finance, retail, healthcare, manufacturing, and of course, tech itself—and companies have huge hiring needs. The tech industry also has an equity and diversity problem that hampers both corporate competitiveness and individual opportunity.
People have been chipping away at the problem for years, but the pandemic and the racial reckoning of the past two years seem to have created more of an appetite for change. And a barrage of education and training announcements have come from major companies like Amazon, Intel, and Google in recent weeks.
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