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Voices from the Road

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Over eight days this summer we drove from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way.

We wanted to learn how higher education intersects with their lives — whether they have a degree, are pursuing a credential, or never had any interest in either. We also wanted to hear about the role colleges are playing, or should be playing, in their communities and understand more about what’s really fueling the growing resentment toward these institutions in our country.

What jumped out to us in our dozens of conversations was how, for just about everyone we spoke with, college was about utility, not at all about prestige. No one talked about “elite” colleges. The Ivy League never came up. And Varsity Blues, the admissions scandal that got all the headlines earlier this year? No one mentioned it.

At the same time, we noticed, college was everywhere. Drive through communities in America, with your eyes peeled for the impact of higher ed, and you see how it shapes the landscape. Universities are mentioned on countless highway exit signs. They’re marketed on billboards. They take up prime real estate.

Stories about college were right below the surface. We just needed to be listening for them. We never started out by saying to someone, “So, tell us how you feel about college.” Instead, we asked about the roller derby, or about the Gateway Arch, or how long they’d owned this deli, or what was hard about being a tattoo artist.

And invariably, within just a few minutes, they’d mention college.

It wasn’t the college that often gets talked about in national conversations, though. It was the community college Eddie Tanner is going to go to next year after he saves up enough money for a car. The women’s college Ann Dees attended in the 1970s that allowed her to come back home to become a librarian. The college Dave McCaddon never went to because he was too busy riding his motorcycle around the country and jumping out of airplanes with the Army.

Here are the stories of some of the people we met.