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Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. In the last few weeks millions of college students headed back to campus, yet the National Center for Education Statistics notes that college enrollment declined since 2010. A recent poll from New America, a centrist think tank organization, shows 54% of Gen Zers still believe there are lots of well-paying stable jobs for those who decide to end their formal education after high school. Our next guest had been reporting on the subject, Christopher Zara, a senior editor for Fast Company, recently published a book titled Uneducated: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth. Hi, Christopher.
Christopher Zara: Hi, thank you for having me on.
Alison Stewart: Also joining us today is NPR correspondent Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education, Elissa, thanks for being with us.
Elissa Nadworny: Hi, so glad to be here.
Alison Stewart: Listeners, let's get you in on this conversation. Did you choose not to pursue a college degree? What reasons factored into your decision? Or maybe you're a true believer in higher education? Tell us why. How is your decision whether or not to attend college affected your trajectory in life? How do you feel about the value of higher education today? Do you think it's worth the costs? Does your employer required job candidates to have a bachelor's or master's? Give us a call 212-433-9692, 212-433 WNYC. You can call in and join us on air, or if you would like to send us a text, you can send it to that number as well. 212-433-9692, 212-433 WNYC, or you can reach out to us via social media @AllOfItWNYC.
Elissa, I'm going to start with you. You've done reporting on this, this year-long decline in undergraduate college enrollment in recent years. What has contributed to that trend in the last decade?
Elissa Nadworny: I'm so glad you're saying the last decade because I do think that is a point of this conversation that gets lost, because the pandemic did really wild things to higher ed, which we'll get to, but this is a trend that started a decade ago. Every year, the National Center for Education Statistics has been showing that there's been a decline in college enrollment. A couple of factors are at play here. Typically, the way that higher ed works is when the economy is good, when there's lots of jobs, fewer people enroll in college.
We had, of course, the Great Recession 2008, 2009, where we saw the peak college enrollment, and then from there, it was downhill as the economy got better, as people had access to more jobs. That's this long, slow decline that's happening. That's also happening as there's been fewer high school students coming out of high school and then filling college classes. [crosstalk]
Alison Stewart: No, go ahead.
Elissa Nadworny: Those are the two long-term factors that are contributing to a slow decline in the amount of people who go to college. Then we have the pandemic.
Alison Stewart: The other elephant in the room, the rising tuition costs.
Elissa Nadworny: Of course, yes, the rising tuition costs, the greater understanding of what loans can maybe do, and maybe I would call that the fear of loan or the ballooning of student debt. Of course, yes, that's a factor. We've got costs, and this fear, or this awareness maybe of this incredible balloon that is student debt.
Alison Stewart: Christopher, let me bring you into this conversation. In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, you wrote about pursuing a career as a journalist, and you've been quite successful. You've been in the business for 17 years, but you've done so without a college degree. Let's start all the way back. Can you share with us why you decided not to go to college?
Christopher Zara: Yes, sure. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book Uneducated was really because I felt that there was a perspective missing from the debate about college, which is the perspective that comes from the person or people without a college degree, and it's often not a choice. I came from a neighborhood where it wasn't unusual to not go to college and often not even finish high school. I personally didn't finish high school, I write about in the book and in the New York Times piece. I got a GED, but I had issues in high school and really didn't finish. That was a common story in my neighborhood. School wasn't necessarily valued, it wasn't necessarily taught. We didn't have a lot of guidance in terms of preparing us for school.
Then of course, getting back to the cost of it, which we just mentioned. There's enormous costs that go along with pursuing college. I wouldn't even really call it a choice. I think what happened was, after working in the business of journalism for several years, I really came to be very much aware that my presence there as someone without a college degree was unusual, and it's gotten even less than usual as time has gone on. Journalism was not always such a highly educated pursuit. That was the reason to write the book and probably one of the reasons, to get back to your original question, why I didn't go to college is because that was just what was expected at that time.
Alison Stewart: You grew up around Trenton, New Jersey, that's right?
Christopher Zara: Yes, correct.
Alison Stewart: Were you an outlier in your neighborhood? It sounds like you maybe weren't, that that was not unusual that someone would just decide not to go to college, or just wouldn't go, not even decide, you wouldn't go.
Christopher Zara: It was pretty unusual. The outlier part, I think, is that I ended up working in the career that I did. It was through a lot of luck and some opportunities that presented themselves. It was an unpaid internship that got me my first real opportunity in journalism, and then a staff job at that same publication. That's not the normal route, I came to realize pretty quickly that most of my colleagues didn't have that same experience.
Alison Stewart: This is a little bit of a touchy-feely question, but what did that feel like for you? How did that make you feel?
Christopher Zara: That's really why I wanted to write the book. There is this power to education to define us, even when we don't have the proper education that many people would consider a regular education. Education is this defining characteristic for people who go all the way to Ivy League schools and for people like myself who ended up dropping out of high school. There's this way that society puts you in a bucket and it starts with every opinion poll that you read, that tells you, "Here's what college-educated voters think, here's what the non-college-educated voters think."
You're constantly told by society that you're in one of two of those buckets, so you can't help but think of yourself and define yourself along those terms to some extent.
Alison Stewart: Elissa, how have institutions addressed declining rates of enrollment? Have colleges acknowledged in any way that people are losing either interest or losing faith or losing, quite frankly, the ability to pursue a degree?
Elissa Nadworny: Well, they certainly know it, because they're seeing their numbers go down. I've talked to so many colleges across the country who are seeing this drop in enrollment. This is really a crisis, really, for a lot of institutions and I'm specifically thinking of community colleges and regional public. That's where the majority of students go in this country. In terms of how they're addressing it, I think the biggest thing is this money bucket that we've talked about. We've seen colleges move to try and take loans completely out of their packages. When you get in and you get your financial aid package, that would be money usually raised from a college to fill out those loans. That's one trend that we're seeing, is this elimination of loans.
We're also seeing, at the community college especially, waivers for applying, waivers for your first class, so you don't even pay tuition on those just to try and get you in the door. The other kind of nationwide trends that we're seeing to get students enroll in college is something called dual enrollment, which is where high school students will take classes while they're still in high school. This is actually one of the only pieces of the whole 'Who's going to college?' puzzle that's going up since the pandemic. States are pouring a lot of money into programs like this to try and get high school students to take those college classes before they graduate high school.
It does a couple of things. One, it saves you a lot of money as the student and the family because you've got those college credits under your belt. Two, it really introduces you to this idea of college and maybe what is offered there. I think Chris talks about this a little bit, but our perception of what college is, I think, is changing. I think that's really important to acknowledge. Sometimes I feel like, especially in newsrooms, we talk about college, and that can mean a lot of things. Thinking of community colleges to your programs, even short-term certificate programs as college, as post-high school credentialing, I think is a necessary and important shift that we're starting to think about.
Alison Stewart: Let's take some calls. Let's talk to Alison on the Upper East Side. Hi, Alison. Thank you for calling in.
Alison: Hey, Alison, welcome back.
Alison Stewart: Thank you.
Alison: I said to the screener I'm a little ambivalent. I am a little old-fashioned. I myself have a graduate degree. I have two daughters. One graduated from undergrad and is looking to get her graduate degree. My 22-year-old was a COVID college kid, and she stopped. I'm trying to say, "That's okay. You don't need a college education," but at the same time, I think it's so important. It opens your world. There are so many opportunities that are out there. Then the cost is really stupid these days. It's just ridiculous.
I think it's great. I think the education and opening your eyes up to various subjects is a good experience. Personally, I was a single mother and it was very, very, very hard to pay for college, so I don't know what to say.
Alison Stewart: No, you said a lot of really interesting things. Thank you very much for calling in. Let's talk to Kim from Maplewood, New Jersey. Hi, Kim. Thank you for calling All Of It.
Kim: Hi. I was calling because I wanted to just share a story that my brother and I are almost the same age, and he did not go to college. I did, right out of high school. Today, however many years later, 30 years later working, he ultimately got his degree. His employer paid for an engineering degree. It took him eight years to get it while he was going to school, part-time.
Today, however many years later, I make double what he makes, and I just think it's a point of-- money was brought up in terms of earnings potential. We both have a degree, an undergraduate degree, but I, in the long run, make a lot more than him and we're both happy in our professions.
Alison Stewart: Kim, thank you for calling in. We'll get into more about the financial aspect of having a college degree as well as the politics, how that comes into play. My guests are senior editor for Fast Company and the author of Uneducated: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth. That's Christopher Zara, and Elissa Nadworny is NPR's correspondent covering higher education. We'll have more with my guests. We'll take more of your calls. We've got a whole bunch of great texts to get to as well. Stay with us here at All Of It.
Alison Stewart: You're listening to All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. We're discussing how people are feeling about higher education and college degrees. My guests are Christopher Zara and Elissa Nadworny, as well as you listeners. Please give us a call, 212-433-9692. We want to hear from you. Are you a college graduate? Did you choose not to pursue a college degree? What reasons have factored into your decisions?
212-433-9692, 212-433-WNYC. How do you feel about the value of higher education today? Christopher, I want to talk about how the workforce has responded to higher education trends. You touched on something that also Paul Tough wrote in his New York Times piece. People have seen it over the weekend. He's written all these amazing books on inequality and education.
He wrote, "About a decade or so, Americans were feeling pretty positive about higher education," and even pointed to a research finding that 60% of Americans said that colleges and universities were having a positive impact on the country. When we think about politics, he also noted that when Obama ran against Romney, Obama, the Democrat, Romney, the Republican, Romney won the college-educated vote, and that flipped with Trump versus Clinton. You wrote, "When we talk about the education divide in this country, it's often through the lens of political and cultural differences." What do you mean?
Christopher Zara: Partially, I tend to get a little frustrated with some of the debate around the politics of college education, in part because I don't fit into the traditional bucket. Now, I'm typically a Democratic voter. I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and yet there was this narrative at that time that the [chuckles] "white working class voter was going for Trump."
Now, granted, that probably was true in the broad demographics, and certainly those articles were well-researched, and I'm not calling out any specific article, but it frustrated me a little bit because I felt like the discussion about higher education should really be about the good that it's doing, and not necessarily about what they're teaching in terms of political leanings. I think there's lots of ways you can look at college from both sides of the political spectrum as being a benefit to both sides, if that makes sense.
Alison Stewart: It does. I'm just curious and maybe Elissa you can-- Since you report on this, why would politics enter this conversation? I hear Christopher's frustration with it, yet it has.
Elissa Nadworny: You have to look at what's happening at state houses across the country. There has certainly been a loud, oftentimes political attack on higher ed institutions. I'm talking about things like Florida or states trying to limit things like tenure or what can be taught in a college classroom. I think that that is kind of contributing to our perception of higher ed and maybe who has control and who wants to have control.
I think that that is absolutely happening, and the perception piece is a reflection of what's happening at state houses. One of the things Chris said I wanted to bring up was, I think this desire to make college and higher ed non-partisan or bipartisan is an interesting idea, especially when you look at something like free college. Of course, President Biden tried to make free community college a thing.
It didn't work, but free community college is actually a very purple issue when you look at it on the state level. Take Tennessee, for example, which has done a lot of really interesting things around making community college free. That's a Republican-led state, and they're the pioneers on that program. It is interesting how we think about higher ed. Do we think about it in terms of society or do we think about it as an engine for workforce development? I think depending on how you look at it, that's colored by politics.
Alison Stewart: Let's get to some texts. Someone texted in. "I wanted to study graphic design, which was what I thought united as a creative outlet with a combination of computer skills, but when I graduated from high school, it was not a major, but only a class. It took a few years for that to change, and then I was already into the workforce. Now, all these years have passed, and a degree is needed for anything and everything that enables one to continue to live in New York City and not have to depend on others to survive. I'd like to go back to school, but fear that my writing skills are not up to par to write an essay to gain admission, and I feel so stuck."
Christopher, I think you might be able to respond to that, given part of what your book about, and part of what you've written about is this idea that you can't get past the first round of questions without saying yes or no to having a college degree.
Christopher Zara: Yes. The gatekeepers, and often the gatekeepers now are automated and there's this filtering that takes place within the job application process. It's a big issue. It occurred to me when I had been laid off at one point and I had 10 years of experience in a newsroom. I thought the world was going to be my oyster. "Hey, I'll just apply for another job and here I go."
Then, of course, I discovered pretty quickly that without that bachelor's degree, it was really difficult to get my resume seen. I think the good news is there are a lot of smart people thinking about this now from a design perspective in terms of the software that's out there, and there's a lot more awareness that these filters can hurt segments of the workforce. I think that's a really good first step that will help not just applicants, but also the companies themselves who are looking for a more diverse workforce.
Alison Stewart: How will it help the companies?
Christopher Zara: When we're in a labor shortage as of right now, you have a lot of companies that need the workers, which is partially why you see some of these big companies relaxing their degree requirements. There's companies like Google and IBM, Delta Airlines is another one. They've, to some extent, realized that the really stringent degree requirements that they've had in place, especially for middle skills jobs, was not doing them any favors. Now, what's happened is they're starting to relax some of those-- Again, I do think it's just a first step. I don't think it's going to solve all of our issues with the workforce, but I think it's good that people are talking about it and that there's more awareness.
Alison Stewart: Let's take some more calls. Spencer is calling in from Bushwick, Brooklyn. Hi, Spencer, thanks for calling in.
Spencer: Hi, thanks for taking my call.
Alison Stewart: Sure. What's up?
Spencer: I just want to chime in on the college debate. I didn't have to, but I went to a college program that was five-years long, required five internships to graduate and I used that to travel around the world. I currently don't use my degree at all because I'm in the restaurant industry now as like managers, partners, so for my own businesses, but I think the structure of college is what the biggest takeaway. It doesn't necessarily matter what you're studying, but if you do study something, it can create a big difference in how you view the world around you.
Alison Stewart: How so?
Spencer: Because it's created by people that know how to make structural courses. It's like a plan system and you can use that to your advantage or not, based on if you want to live life through [unintelligible 00:20:37] or go through a system that is designed for centuries.
Alison Stewart: Spencer, thanks for calling in. Let's talk to Stefano or Stefano calling in from Bloomfield, New Jersey. Hello. You're on the air.
Stefano: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to say I think that college, at least for me, has been an interesting road. I've been to three types of colleges. I went out of state my first year. Then I took a break, tried to do my own thing, but it didn't really work out. My mom encouraged me to go back to school. I started a podcast, I started a blog, but obviously, I wasn't making enough money from that and the outlook of that wasn't too great. I went to community college after that, and then I finished my bachelor's this past May at Montclair State, which is near where I live.
I would say, for me personally, my mom, being somebody who has gone to college, I think was really important in encouraging me to go back because if not, I was saying, "Oh, maybe I'll go, maybe I won't." I'll say that in terms of a gauge of whether somebody should go to college, I'd say, if they're doing stuff on their own, whether it be investing, I don't know, trying to make content, whatever it is, if they're not making a lot of money off of it in the short run, then you really have to consider what can, and I think that a lot of the stats point to the fact that college is a good path to take in terms of getting your foot in the door in future jobs and things like that.
Alison Stewart: Thank you Stefano for calling. Elissa, it's interesting because it seems to be part of the conversation looking at some of the texts we're getting, this idea of like, "Will I make enough money? Was this worth it in terms of the financial investment I put into it? Or, is college about, as one of our folks texted, it's about learning critical thinking and understanding the world and complex social, economic, and political issues, giving a framework to understand and navigate our way of life?" It seems to be this push and pull here.
Elissa Nadworny: Yes, I think we know we have lots of studies that show on average, if you have a bachelor's degree, you're going to earn more than someone with an associate's degree or a certificate, but we are starting to get some new data that shows, that's not always the case. There are some exceptions, and I think one thing that's really important to think about is, what kinds of jobs are you interested in getting? This is maybe something I think we miss. There's not really a place for this. We don't really do this in high school. We don't really do this in life, which is match-up. What are we thinking about how we want to make money? Then thinking about what do we do to have to get there?
I'm bringing this problem up and I'm going to give you a small solution that could help people who are listening, which is the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has this amazing Handbook called the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Just Google this, and this basically tells you, based on a career that we collect data on, what the average pay is going to be, what the level of education you're going to need, and this is the big one, how much this profession is expected to grow over the next 10 years. I think this can really help people make those decisions of like, "Is it going to be worth it? Should I take out this loan? Is this four year, or we just talked to a guy who took much longer than that, is this financial investment worth it?" That's from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and I go to this all the time for my reporting and I recommend it to families who are thinking about college. I recommend it to young people. It's the Occupational Outlook Handbook and has so much data to help you make that money decision.
Alison Stewart: Let's try to get a call or two more in here. Gail is calling in from Montclair. Hi, Gail. Thank you for calling All Of It. You've got about a minute.
Gail: No problem. I'm wondering, I am an African American woman, college-educated. My daughter is college-educated with a graduate degree, and I'm wondering what this impact of no college will have on marginalized Black and brown communities where we've been preaching to our kids for years, the way out of marginalization, the way out of poverty is a college education where women, particularly Black and brown women, have to be over-credentialed to be successful. That's a question to the two. I don't know that a Black or a brown woman would've had the success as your colleague from Fast Company.
Alison Stewart: Chris. Thoughts?
Christopher Zara: No, it's probably true. There's definitely some reflection that takes place when you get to a certain spot and you're a White guy and you look back and you're like, "Would I have gotten my foot in the door if I wasn't the White guy?" To answer the first question, I think that there's two ways to look at it. One is what will the no-college philosophy do to marginalized communities? That's a question I can't necessarily answer, but the other one is, what will it do to marginalized communities who haven't had the access or won't get the access to college? Part of the philosophy behind these skills-based hiring initiatives is that they do help marginalized communities get their foot in the door. It actually can be a win-win.
In terms of how you want to teach your kids about the value of college, that's really a personal decision that I think that every parent's going to have to obviously ask themselves. Part of the thing I like to say is, even though I wrote a book called Uneducated, and it's all about my experience not having a college degree, it's not an anti-college book at all.
Alison Stewart: No, not at all.
Christopher Zara: In fact, if I had it to do over again, and if I had-- My druthers when I was a younger person, I might've gone a different path, and I do feel like I missed out on something special by not having gone to college.
Alison Stewart: My guests have been, you listeners, thank you to everybody who called and texted you as we didn't get you on the air. We appreciate your contribution. Also, thanks to Christopher Zara, Fast Company Senior Editor, and Elissa Nadworny, NPR Correspondent covering Higher Education. Thanks to both of you.
Elissa Nadworny: Thank you.
Christopher Zara: Thank you for having me on.
Alison Stewart: That is all of it for today. I'm Allison Stewart, I appreciate you listening and I appreciate you. I will be back here tomorrow.
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