Plus, our prisons reporter speaks to a psychologist about trauma and the potentially healing role of education. And, catch up on the latest reporting from our HBCU fellows and Local Reporting Network.

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

Last week we visited Cleveland with Amy Morona, our higher ed reporter at Signal Cleveland. We had dozens of conversations all across the city with bike shop owners, bartenders, city employees, landscapers, and glass blowers. One major takeaway: Many people said college was something they knew they should want to do — but they struggled to see how it fit in their lives. They had a hard time believing that all the time and money would actually pay off, and in many cases they simply were uninspired by what colleges were offering.

Plus, there are barriers that keep them away, or make it hard to finish. There’s the cost — and the complexity of paying for it. There are information gaps — one person told us he wasn’t seeing enough information about local colleges pop up on his phone. And, there are lots of open questions — about what programs exist and how one’s interests can transfer to a job.

This isn’t just the case in Cleveland, of course. Most Americans think college helps people become engaged citizens. But most also think colleges are stuck in the past, and inaccessible for low-income students. (That’s all according to this 2022 report on perceptions of public higher education.)

A few other snippets from our conversations:

  • Mike, a glass blower, questions if college is necessary. It wasn’t for him — he dropped out of Kent State University like several of his colleagues, and has been working at the Glass Bubble Project for more than two decades.
  • Ashley tends bar at the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library (which you have to see to believe.) She has an associate’s degree, but when she was in school, she didn’t really see the broader purpose. It was just what her friends were doing.
  • Alex, a security guard at a bank, wasn’t very inspired by career fairs at his high school. He graduated in 2020 and sometimes thinks about college but doesn’t really know what he would do there or even what his local options would be. They don’t come across his phone, he said. His mom and sister went to college nearby but he couldn’t remember where. There is one college on his radar — Full Sail University, in Florida. He came across it on TikTok.
  • Abraham majored in early childhood education at Cleveland State. Now, he works as an Ohio City ambassador. (Teaching wasn’t really for him, he concluded. Students bring a lot of trauma to the classroom, and it’s stressful to manage.) Abraham was the first in his family to go to college, and wishes he had a mentor to guide him through the process. Financial aid was opaque — and he didn’t really know what questions to ask.

We also visited the new office of our partner, Signal Cleveland. EIC Lila Mills and Managing Editor Mark Naymik showed us around and sent us home with swag. (Thanks, Lila and Mark!) We love working with Amy and with Signal. We hope to replicate this trip at our other partner newsrooms in the coming months.

Also, if you’re wondering, we did hear “Cleveland Rocks,” the city’s unofficial anthem — but probably not in the way you’d expect. We happened to visit Happy Dog — a Detroit Shoreway bar that serves hot dogs with dozens of homemade toppings — during a monthly Classical Revolution Cleveland music night. Students from the Cleveland Institute of Music performed “Cleveland Rocks” on string instruments. It was awesome.

++ Amy talked to Cleveland’s graduating seniors about what’s next.

++ Lisa Philip, our reporter at WBEZ, recently put out a piece that could go a long way in breaking down some of these barriers — it explains every element of a financial aid offer.

Trauma is an ‘emotional backpack’

Clinical psychologist Napoleon Wells at the 2023 SxSWEdu in Austin, Texas. Photo by Al Thomas via

Charlotte West, our staff reporter covering prisons, interviewed clinical psychologist Napoleon Wells in the latest issue of her College Inside newsletter. Wells primarily works with veterans dealing with trauma from combat, but his work has also focused on the impact of trauma in the classroom.

In the conversation, Wells said trauma is like an “emotional backpack” — people dealing with it will struggle to sit in class, advocate for themselves, focus on what they’re learning, or finish assignments.

“I will give educators the same advice that I would give a therapist who was about to start working with individuals who were traumatized,” Wells said. “That would be to absolutely make room and embrace the fact that trauma is present.”

Read the rest of the conversation.

The latest from our HBCU fellows

A freshman pinning ceremony
The 2022 freshman pinning ceremony at Texas Southern University (Photo: Courtesy of Texas Southern)

We’ve got about one month left with our inaugural class of fellows in the HBCU Student Journalism Network. We’re really proud of the work they’ve been doing.

Over the weekend, we co-published a story with the Washington Post about the fact that just 1 in 3 students at many HBCUs is a man. While this echoes a broader pattern across higher education, it’s particularly evident at historically Black colleges. And, Skylar Stephens and Naomi Harris (our staff reporter covering race)talked to lots of people who explain why it matters.

”If one group is not seen, it makes it easier for people to discount and to disregard and set aside,” a professor at N.C. Central told them.

++ Fellows Tyuanna Williams and Brittany Patterson break down why it can be so hard for families to repay Parent PLUS loans. We co-published the story with Capital B.

++ We hope to grow the network in the fall. Please support our work.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Amanda Lowery and her daughter Aaliyah in their apartment at the Anderson Scholar House. The program helps single mothers attain a college degree while securing housing. Maxine Wallace for Chalkbeat

From Indiana: All kinds of hurdles can pop up en route to a college degree. Anderson Scholar House aims to eliminate a big one: stable housing. MJ Slaby visited the house, which is helping single mothers stay enrolled.

From California: Feather River College, a community college in rural Plumas County, wants to offer a bachelor’s degree in applied fire management. That might seem like a no-brainer, after wildfires tore through the area in 2018 and 2021. But the college has a major opponent: the California State University system.

From Tampa Bay: New College trustees denied tenure to five professors yesterday, the latest step in a saga that our reporter Ian Hodgson has been covering. Following the controversial vote, faculty representative Matthew Lepinski said he is leaving the board, as well as his position in the computer science department at the end of the term. He’s the second professor from the department to do so in recent weeks.

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