Photo source: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Digital Visual Library/Wikimedia Commons

The following article by Sara Hebel was originally published by our partners at OpenCampus on Jan. 31, 2020 and is reprinted here with permission.

What a City Needs

In this sprawling, diverse country, you can know the big trends but miss a lot of stories.

The national data lays out contours of narratives: More people are earning college degrees but inequities remain. One in six American adults has student-loan debt. Many jobs go unfilled because too few workers have the degrees or credentials required.

But the aggregate numbers can’t tell you much about the why. What stops people from going to college? What makes it hard to stay? What would it take to be able to go back? And the averages leave out a whole lot about the who.

To learn more about the impact of these trends in individual lives — and to figure out which obstacles loom largest and where interventions might matter most — it helps to zoom in to a region, a state, a city.

Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about New Orleans. It’s where we ended our road trip down the Mississippi last summer, and it’s where we’ll now be headed back this spring.

OpenCampus is partnering with The Lens to learn from the city’s residents about the barriers they face to getting the education they need and how colleges can serve them better. Our work is being funded by a Community Network Grant that we received from the Facebook Journalism Project. We’ll be using it to hold a series of neighborhood forums and create a guide to help New Orleans residents navigate college.

Local Concerns

One thing you see when you start to look at New Orleans’ numbers is just how big of a role its colleges play in educating the city. Many Americans enroll at campuses close to home, but in New Orleans nearly two-thirds of residents who go to college stay in the city to do so, according to this report by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. How well these institutions do or do not meet local needs, then, can have an especially deep impact.

The disparities here are also striking. College-going rates are going up. But in New Orleans, as elsewhere, wide gaps remain — by race and economic status — in who enrolls, who stays, and who has a degree. Among the city’s adults, more than 67 percent of white residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree but less than 23 percent of black residents do. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans’ 400,000 residents are black.

Erin Wheeler, the executive director of College Beyond, a nonprofit organization in New Orleans that helps people get to and through college, worries about how to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. More than 25 percent of New Orleans families live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent of all American families.

What’s Missing

The one thing she thinks would help the most: a more personalized approach to education.

Schools are getting better at helping students aspire to college, at requiring everyone to fill out federal financial-aid forms. But then what? Who talks to them about the rest?

To stick with college and to then succeed in careers, Erin says, people need more one-on-one coaching: someone to help them understand the purpose of their education, how to find and create support systems, how to pick majors and assess the kinds of jobs they really want. Otherwise, people grow disillusioned because college isn’t what they asked for or what they thought it would be.

“It’s that conventional wisdom that people are missing,” she says. “And that really is a personal conversation.”

Sara Hebel is a co-founder of the nonprofit news organization OpenCampus and a former editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Click here to sign up for the OpenCampus weekly newsletter.

If you’re in New Orleans, or know people there we should reach out to for our joint OpenCampus-Lens higher education project, send us a note. We’d love to connect.