A respiratory therapy program class at the Community College of Allegheny County. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

The suddenly essential jobs no one wants

It’s hard to talk about Pittsburgh for very long without “eds and meds” entering the conversation. Education and medicine have been heralded for their role in reinventing the Steel City, becoming new pillars of the region’s economy in recent decades.

But the city’s health professions, like those in many places across the country, are threatened, Naomi Harris reported this week in a story co-published with our partner PublicSource.

Enrollment in key training programs for allied-health fields is plummeting, as is job satisfaction in many of those careers. More than 90 percent of Pittsburgh’s hospital workers are thinking of leaving the profession, according to a recent survey by the University of Pittsburgh.

“People appreciate the roles that healthcare systems are playing in changing what Pittsburgh looks like,” said Ray Engel, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh who has spent the past five years researching the working conditions of hospital workers. But, “We find it ironic that it was only with the pandemic that people started to see, particularly lower wage workers, as suddenly essential.” 

Uneven returns

Health and medicine is often pitched not only as a solution for powering regional economies but also for advancing individual careers. One of the biggest draws for programs in allied health has been the promise of available jobs and solid salaries. Some deliver on those promises — others fall short. 

For respiratory therapists? On average, they earn $72,295 per year in Pittsburgh after an 18 month-program. That’s above Pittsburgh’s median household income of $55,500. 

For people working in diagnostic, intervention, and treatment care, salaries tend to be closer to $46,000 two years after graduation. But students who pursue clinical or medical lab programs earn almost exactly the same as the average high-school graduate without a college degree: $26,000. 

But even having a better return on investment, in terms of pay and employability, hasn’t protected many programs from dwindling student interest. That includes Pittsburgh Technical College’s programs that train surgical technologists, a high-demand job with an average salary of $51,575 in Pennsylvania, and the Community College of Allegheny County’s respiratory therapy program, which had only half as many students in 2020 as in 2018.

A strained workforce

Ultimately, the challenge of the labor market may be hard for some of these college programs to overcome, said Shalin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst for New America.

“We desperately need great allied-health workers. It’s an essential job, but unfortunately right now we do not compensate our essential workers the way we should.”

And the layered problems, some of which existed pre-COVID, makes it challenging to for people to stay in these jobs, Naomi reports. All of this begs the question of what could happen to a city like Pittsburgh now so centered around health care. 

“Everyone is going to need health care,” said Jeff Shook, a University of Pittsburgh professor and researcher. “If we have a workforce that is so strained and unable to do what they want to do, it is going to affect everyone in the city.”

— Sara Hebel

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Noemi Lozano encourages students to use Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grants for college. Earning a certificate in one year, for free, attracts students who may question the value of college or worry about debt. Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat

In Indiana, Stephanie Wang examines how well the state is delivering on the promise of its one-year certificate program that allows residents to get training to become welders, electricians, medical assistants, web programmers, or truck drivers for free. The state touts that grant recipients increase their salaries by a median $6,800 a year after training. Still, experts say the state can do more.

  • And a bright spot in the program — that it attracts more Black and Latino students — could also pose a danger, Stephanie writes, of steering students of color away from four-year colleges and into lower-paid jobs.

In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon has drafted a policy that would allow its police to use facial recognition technology during criminal investigations. Some say facial recognition can be useful, especially in an era in which educational settings can turn into targets, Emma Folts reports. But researchers and civil liberties advocates have argued that it threatens privacy and poses disproportionate risks to people of color and other marginalized identities.

“It really is inconsistent with concepts of academic freedom and intellectual curiosity,” the ACLU told Emma.

The enrollment roller coaster continues for many Northeast Ohio colleges, Amy Morona writes. Some leaders told Amy that things were starting to feel slightly more normal this recruiting season, although there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty. And flat enrollments are now a cause for celebration.

Abortion and higher ed

Will the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision change college-going patterns? The short answer is no. Most students go to school in state and most stay close to home. That means weighing reproductive rights and abortion laws aren’t going to be part of most students’ calculations.

But for some — especially wealthier students who live in states where abortion remains legal — choosing to attend a school in a state where the procedure is now banned just became a lot more complicated.

Some smart looks at the issue in the last week or so:

Topping that list are places like Oberlin College, Kenyon College, Tulane University, and Washington University in St. Louis. All of which bring more than half of their students from states with liberal abortion policies. At Oberlin, it’s 7 out of 10 students. Will those liberal students still be willing to head to school in Ohio?

via James Murphy, Education Reform Now

And this won’t just be a private college issue. A few major public universities have made their finances work in the last generation by heavily recruiting from other states. The University of Alabama, for instance, brings three of every five freshmen from out of state — and now, even in the South, a quarter of the students come from states with more liberal abortion laws. At West Virginia University, nearly half the students hail from liberal states. A drop in these students is a real hit to the bottom line, Murphy points out, because they often pay $20,000 more a year than in-state students do.

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