The departure of a college in rural West Virginia. And, just a few days left to apply to our paid (and remote) fellowship for student journalists at HBCUs.

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

Decay and distrust

One way to understand the role of a college in a community is to see what’s left in its wake when it goes away.

In the small town of Montgomery, W. Va., there are carcasses everywherethe mayor told Nick Fouriezos, our rural reporter. The university’s football field, gym, and Olympic-sized pool sit empty and decaying. It’s been five years since West Virginia University decided to move the local campus to a bigger city an hour away, in part to try to attract more students.

Businesses shut down: The bar, the car dealership, the grocery store. The Upper Kanawha Valley Economic Development Corporation, which used to lease its basement to the university for storage space, went belly up. The town’s high school closed.

And then there’s the cultural life, the ways WVU Tech brought people together. Those connections are gone, too. “The only thing you gather for is church,” Greg Ingram, the mayor, said. “You don’t go to a ball game. The college had a theater: people in the community were actors.”

But the college’s departure is important not just for what it took away, Nick pointed out, but for the distrust it has fueled. The residents of Montgomery feel abandoned by the state’s powerful flagship university, which also has become the state’s largest healthcare provider and employer.

The problem of public perception is something Gordon Gee, West Virginia University’s president, pays a lot of attention to. He’s made it a point to visit all 55 of the state’s counties. And this summer, he plans to get to all of them yet again.

Gee says his goal is to make the university essential to West Virginians: in their health, their education, and their economic well-being. Every once in a while, someone will say the university is too big, the president told Nick. “But that’s a better statement than saying the university is irrelevant.”

Still, for communities like Montgomery, what the big flagship might consider outreach can feel a lot more like overreach, especially when they end up on the wrong side of power differentials.

All of this plays into the increased skepticism of higher education: A majority of Americans, across every age group, are now more likely to disagree than agree that a four-year education is worth the cost, according to a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll released in April.

“The financial fretting is fairly simple,” Nick wrote. “Prospective students aren’t certain a degree will help their career, but they are fairly certain they will need to go into debt to get it.”

But in places like Montgomery it’s another type of disconnect that looms large. “At the same time,” Nick added, “criticism against higher education is increasingly exposing partisan and cultural divides: less the feeling that a four-year degree doesn’t have value, and more that the flagship university doesn’t value them.”

— Sara Hebel

Apply to our HBCU reporting fellowship

We’re looking for six fellows to join our HBCU Student Journalism Network for the fall semester. Applications are due June 1. This is a paid, part-time, and remote reporting opportunity for student journalists currently enrolled at HBCUs.

Fellows are paid $1,200/month for 10-15 hours of work per week and receive training and editing from professional journalists. Past fellows have had stories co-published in outlets including Capital B and The Washington Post. Learn more about the program. 

A few quick notes about the application process:

  • Apply using this short form. Applicants must be currently enrolled at an HBCU — no May ‘23 graduates. And, the most successful candidates will be interested in digital journalism, not broadcast or PR.
  • We’ll reach out to a group of candidates over the summer to complete short phone interviews. And, if you’re not selected, we’ll let you know that too — and we encourage you to stay in touch.
  • The fall fellowship runs roughly September through December.

Cultural ties bring resilience in prison

At her home in Honolulu, Alisha Kaluhiokalani poses in front of a poster commemorating the death of her father Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, who was one of the top young surfers in the United States in the 1970s. Photo: Charlotte West

When Alisha Kaluhiokalani had a random chance to play her father’s favorite song, “I Kona,” on a ukulele during her first year in prison, she had no idea that it would change her future. The moment led Kaluhiokalani to reflect on her culture, helping her reach where she is today — a bachelor’s degree-holder with a major in social work from the University of Hawaii Manoa.  Charlotte West, our reporter covering prisons and higher ed, co-published this story with Honolulu Civil Beat.

While college-in-prison programs in the United States provide opportunities for individuals to focus on their own cultures, for Native Hawaiians in prison, enrolling in a Hawaiian studies program can ease the pain resulting from historical losses of land and culture, as well as alienation from Western education systems.

“Pushing back on the narratives of colonization and racism through Hawaiian studies,” Kaluhiokalani said, “fights the very systems that have led to our unjust incarceration outcomes and underscores the agency and value of our students in education, community and society.”

  • Charlotte also talked to Donnie Veal, a formerly incarcerated student now poised to work at Cabrillo College in California. ‘I know how to walk the walk,’ he says of working at a college.

— Lynn Liu

The future of legacy admissions

All eyes are on the Supreme Court, as justices are expected to soon rein in the use of race-conscious admissions. But there’s another admissions policy — legacy admissions — that critics say also deserves scrutiny for favoring white, wealthy students at the expense of those who are historically disadvantaged.

“It doesn’t come down to, ‘Are people who aren’t qualified getting in because of legacy?’ ” Education Reform Now’s James Murphy told Lisa Philip, our reporter at WBEZ. “It’s … ‘Is legacy a good way to break a tie? Is legacy a good way to decide between two incredibly qualified, super talented students?’ ”

In Illinois, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University have both held onto the practice. The institutions give as much consideration to legacy status as they do to race. Neither is weighed as heavily as academics or extracurriculars, Lisa writes.

— Colleen Murphy

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Jess Gonzalez, left, Alexander Mam, Izaias Pérez, and Jose Hernandez Diaz wait for commencement ceremonies for Aurora’s William Smith High School. Graduation was held May 17 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver. The senior class was in its freshman year at the start of the pandemic.Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

From Colorado: Jason Gonzales talked to several graduating high-school seniors about what’s next — from community college, to a welding apprenticeship, to an HBCU on the East Coast.

  • Jason also reported on a proposed federal policy change that could hurt rural students by requiring family farms and small businesses to be tallied on the FAFSA. Nick Fouriezos, our rural reporter, explored this issue last month, in Mile Markers.

From Cleveland: Cuyahoga Community College’s foundation recently celebrated a $50 million fundraising campaign with a lavish party, complete with thousands of dollars of pierogies, contracts show. The six-figure spend stands in contrast to how Tri-C President Michael Baston (who was in attendance, in a gold vest and tie) hopes to position the college in Cleveland.

From El Paso: The number of adults with some college but no credential is on the rise in Texas. The University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College are trying to recruit those students to come back for degrees.

From Tampa Bay: Ian Hodgson went to two New College graduations — the traditional ceremony, featuring Trump’s former Covid adviser, and the alternative ceremony, where students dressed up in colorful and wacky outfits. Side by side, the events highlight the challenges and changes that New College has weathered this year.

“In January I really couldn’t wait to get out of here,” Gaz Miller said at the alternative ceremony, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of six new trustees. “But as more things kept happening, I started to really appreciate this place and what it stands for. … I’m just here to get my name called, walk across the stage and, like, stand up for human rights.”

  • Divya Kumar, Ian’s colleague at the Tampa Bay Times, reports that faculty at the Sarasota college have taken the noteworthy step of censuring the board of trustees.

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus