Paul Fain, Higher Education Journalist: Experiential Learning Gains Traction
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
A new poll from the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago confirms a troubling trend. By a 56 to 42 percent margin, a majority of Americans do not believe that a four-year college degree is worth the cost. That represents a ten percent decline over the past ten years of the number of people who see higher education as a good investment. Combined with dropping enrollments and declining graduation rates, this adds up to a daunting challenge for the higher education community.
Here to paint a fuller picture of these and other challenges and to tell us how institutions are responding is Paul Fain, a veteran observer of the higher education scene. His newsletter, The Job, focuses on the nexus between education and work, and he helped to create a related weekly publication called Work Shift. Earlier in his career, he spent fifteen years as a reporter and editor at Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks so much for joining us today, Paul.
Paul Fain: Hey, Van. Good to see you.
Van: It’s great to have you here. All right, Paul. I shared these statistics. How did we get here? What are the main elements of this erosion in the perceived value of the four-year degree?
Paul: Yeah, I think it’s obviously like a lot of challenges in our society: one that’s been building for a long time that the pandemic pushed off the cliff. I think there are many factors that go into it. It’s hard to kind of quantify which ones are the biggest, but I think the rhetoric around student debt and the very real concerns about student debt have got to be at the front of the class.
For me, when I saw the data that 50% — fully half — of black college students who borrow to go to college will default within twelve years…to me, that suggested that something is not working in a profound way. And it’s not good for other folks either. I think the overall average is over 30%. You know, you’ve got questions about institutions generally in American society and I think, again, the pandemic really made life much harder for low-income folks who questioned where to put their time and energy and their money.
Van: It’s troubling to see this erosion of trust in higher education institutions. I think there’s probably a broader trend in that that relates to trust in media, trust in government. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that?
Paul: Pew has done some research over the years about the overall decline in trust in institutions and society, and higher ed is certainly not immune to that. I think, unfortunately — and I say that as a citizen — it’s getting increasingly dragged, no news flash here, into the culture wars. That said, and I’ve seen polling to back this up, I don’t think that’s the key thing.
I do think there’s a substantial portion of folks who are conservative who feel that their views aren’t respected on college campuses, sure. But the bigger thing is just understandable doubt about whether the investment will pay off. I know we’re going to get into this a bit — the question of ROI and how applicable it is to higher education — but as you know, Van, the vast majority of students are investing their time and money to get into a good career. And it’s a crazy labor market. It’s a strong labor market. But it’s one that I think a lot of people rightfully — and again, driven in part by that concern about debt levels and how expensive college can be — who are wondering, is this going to pay off for me?
Van: And so what are you seeing, Paul, as responses from institutions as they look at this trend as well?
Paul: Yeah, that’s a great question. Generalizing about higher ed, as you know well, is impossible. Big, big difference between a community college and a highly selective residential four-year college. Graduate degrees are 50% of the student debt right now, so it’s a big, complex market. I do think that in the last fifteen or so years, higher education accepted that there was more to college than just getting in. College access wasn’t where the responsibility of higher education ended.
You know this, and it’s hard to really believe it, but there was a time when I was at the Chronicle that college presidents would come and talk to me and say, “You know, graduation isn’t our responsibility. We don’t know why people go to college.” They’ll look to your left, look to your right, who will be here in four years? That was still alive. Well, that’s dead now. I don’t think you’re going to find a college president who doesn’t say completion is part of our job. What happens after college, I think, is on now that kind of continuum of the next wave of education reform energy. The question of how much higher ed accepts it, again, depends on who you’re asking.
But I think especially in the last year or two, you’ve seen a real sea change in most folks at colleges saying, “Yes, we do have some responsibility to improve the economic mobility of students.” One of the most important data points beyond that default data that I think changed the debate for insiders was Raj Chetty and his colleagues doing research at what is now Opportunity Insights at Harvard showing which institutions do move people up in economic and social mobility. Quite frankly, the results weren’t great for higher ed on the whole.
Van: Yikes. So, getting in, completing, and then what happens next? My son went through the college application process, and many of the degrees being offered are exactly the same as when I had gone to college. I’m wondering, how has the arrival of short-term and alternative credentials influenced this ability to shape what happens to students after they complete college?
Paul: Yeah, great question. It’s always interesting to experience this firsthand with a child or yourself relative to the big picture. Before I get into it, just very briefly, there was new data in the last week from the Upjohn Institute about hiring over the last year. As you know, there’s been a big push by employers and state and federal governments to open opportunities for folks without four-year degrees. However, this new data shows that hasn’t happened, that folks without college degrees are not seeing higher hiring volume or wages. Who is? Graduate degree holders. Again, credentialism is a thing, and frankly, you don’t hear many people in higher ed talking about whether or not X credential is necessary for a job. I think you will in the coming years.
But, there are a lot of folks who look at their opportunities right now and say, “I’d sure like to get started on a career faster than the four to six or seven years it will take me to earn a bachelor’s degree.” And there are, unfortunately, a dizzying array of short-term alternative credentials. People overuse that term, the “wild west” but, you know, how do you make sense of it, especially as a prospective student from a low income or first-generation college background? It’s really not easy.
Van: Before we get off the topic of skills-based hiring, you mentioned that the Upjohn Institute shared some data that maybe the impact of skills-based hiring is still somewhat early. What do you think are some of the barriers to adopting that model more broadly?
Paul: So many. But, you know, I also don’t want to say that this is just PR or a flash in the pan. I think this campaign that Opportunity at Work in particular is leading…they’ve got this ad campaign called “Tear the Paper Ceiling.” It really makes the point that folks have skills even if they don’t have a four-year degree. That means a two-year degree, an associate degree. They put it in the category of STARS, people who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes. It can mean work experience. It can mean short-term alternative credentials. That campaign has been enormously successful, again, I think because it’s nonpartisan. Folks on the left want opportunities too. It’s not just the right, which I think has questioned the degree at the center of everything more historically.
I think it’s eight states now that are prioritizing the hiring of folks in state government without four-year degrees, dropping the four-year degree requirement where they can. The federal government began this in the last administration. It’s something that this administration kept. How many things are like that? You have continuity from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. So, this is real, and I think government jobs can help drive that change.
You are seeing it in big companies too. I mean, part of the challenge here is Google and IBM say they’re doing that. Google can hire anyone in the world that they want. That’s the top brand in the world. They’re endorsing this movement, and they mean that with real sincerity, but I think the change is going to come at different jobs…that small and mid-sized business that figures out how to recruit talented people outside of just checking a box for a four-year degree.
Van: Well, there’s persistent criticism that higher ed is, you know, ineffective in making a connection between the degree and getting good jobs or building the career. Paul, how should we interpret that?
Paul: That’s a tough one, again. I mean, has higher ed done enough? No, on the whole. Van, you worked in two-year systems…does that mean that people at community colleges aren’t doing their best with very limited resources to try to help people advance themselves? Of course they are. Of course they care, too. You know, it’s never as simple as “higher ed is broken” or not. Unfortunately, we live in an age where everything is black and white and easy and people have strong opinions about everything. If anyone really knew how to fix what fails higher ed, I’d love to see it because I don’t think there are any easy answers.
That said, I think we’re starting to see, frankly, the limits of what higher ed can do itself. The latest findings from Raj Chetty and his colleagues showed that social capital actually is more important than educational quality. There are just really troubling data points that have emerged in the last year. Here’s one of the ones that got my attention. City University of New York (CUNY) always does very well on the social mobility index. They’re the best. They’ve done what they’re supposed to. They’ve tweaked their credential offerings to try to encourage more students to get into STEM and to study things like computer software engineering.
But, their graduates in software engineering aren’t getting jobs in the industry and they’re not being paid very well. The median wage for a graduate of CUNY software engineering programs is $45,000 and only 50% work in the field. Why is that? If you want to work in Manhattan in a tech job, you still probably need to go to an elite, highly selective institution. That’s social capital. How do we help people who are not privileged break into good jobs? That’s an all-hands-on-deck problem. That’s not just higher ed’s problem. But yes, higher ed needs to spend more attention and effort on helping folks get a leg up.
Van: Are you seeing any promising practices other than trying to open the gates to the Ivies and the elite schools?
Paul: Yes. I mean, I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish here — I’m in Washington, so it can be a depressing place to be when you think about the way higher ed is discussed — but I think policy makers, the general public and the media has a better sense of the scope of the challenge here. And again, that sounds kind of optimistic, but I mean it. I think there’s better data to show how uphill it is for folks who are the first in their family to pursue a credential; how hard it is to graduate with a sustainable level of debt and to find a career that’s rewarding in all the ways that you hope it would be.
So, I do think that the challenge is clearer than it’s ever been. I think you’re seeing lots of “thousand points of light” of exciting solutions. Pulling it all together…Futuro Health is one of those solutions. I’ve written about what you all are doing. It’s very novel, and I think a lot of people in the country are watching it. I think, unfortunately, a lot of the solutions — yours not included — are very small. I write a lot about interesting, lower cost, on-ramps to careers that have 300 or 400 students. So, that’s another big challenge. But for traditional degree programs, I’m also seeing really exciting solutions. Experiential learning is hot right now, and a lot of colleges are doing their best to connect students with that “earn and learn” experience.
Van: How optimistic are you on the apprenticeship models? It’s a tried-and-true practice in so many areas, and yet it’s so slow to be adopted in the United States and in our company culture. Are you seeing any optimism in terms of a greater sense of adoption?
Paul: Definitely. Apprenticeships are hot. You’re seeing lots of C-suite excitement about them. Also, bipartisan interest. Workforce education and apprenticeships are one of the only issues in this country where every politician in every state likes them, which is exciting. That said, we spend a tiny proportion of public funding on apprenticeships relative to traditional higher education. I think it’s less than 1%. It’s still very small numbers of folks participating in them.
So, I think there’s a role for increased government support and you’re seeing a lot of folks calling for that. But it’s also corporate, let’s be honest. Companies struggle to set these programs up. They’re hard to do well. You’re seeing the rise of a lot of intermediaries that are trying to help them do that in a turnkey way. Apprenticeships for America is a new organization that represents hundreds of them, and there’s a lot of really exciting solutions there.
But the thing to me that doesn’t get talked about enough is that a lot of the exciting apprenticeship opportunities are going to people who have four-year degrees. It turns out that privilege replicates itself. It’s like squeezing a balloon. That doesn’t mean that most of them are doing that, but I worry about that. How are we going to set up this kind of growing experiential learning system to benefit the people who need it the most?
Van: What you say reminded me of a story. I gained my first exposure to apprenticeship when I was working with an energy company with 20,000 men and women. We had these great programs where the company was just thwarted in terms of their ability to bring in good candidates. One of the things they did was they would post the opening, but because they didn’t have enough HR people to screen all the applicants, they would close it within the hour, which meant that the only folks who would know about that window would be friends and family. So, as you say, it’s sort of like the privilege replicates itself because those are the only people “in the know” to apply in that one-hour window. So, being able to look and diagnose where all the failures or the leakage in the system is so important, like if you really want to be honest about bringing in and broadening opportunity.
Paul: That’s a great example. I mean, an hour? Come on, that’s amazing. But I hear this a lot, that companies are sincere about opening up experiential learning, apprenticeship programs, even hiring to folks without four-year degrees, but at the business unit level or in HR, the degree remains the proxy for hiring. And there are folks in companies that need to be sold on this just like anyone else, can we really hire, quote unquote, these people for these positions? I hear that that is a common problem. I do think most large companies and even some smaller ones realize that they have to change how they do business and how they really think about who and how they’re hiring.
Van: Hey, Paul, I sort of connected the dots between experiential learning and apprenticeship, but it’s not the only model. Are there other experiential learning models that you’d like to talk about?
Paul: Yeah. One of the things that I think the pandemic brought into clearer light is that people don’t have good information about what’s even possible in their career paths, particularly, again, the less privileged folks. I’ve heard crazy stories of people who are interested in pursuing education who work in frontline jobs. When they’re asked what they’re interested in, they say HR or accounting because those are the only professional jobs that they’ve encountered in their lives through their work.
So, the idea that you should start thinking about career options in middle school is getting a lot of traction among academics and experts who study this. And that doesn’t mean tracking. That means just getting a sense of what you like and what you’re interested in pursuing…those bite-sized experiences where it’s kind of low risk for both the companies and for the students. I’m seeing a lot of really interesting developments.
The Tulsa School District is doing a lot to try to expose students to career opportunities, including short-term, micro-internship sort of work. And it’s not just Tulsa. This is something I’m seeing in a lot of K-12 and higher ed systems. One company I looked at, The Forage, is an Australian company that’s now in the United States. It offers experiential learning simulations to college students that are designed by companies, and they’re super short — somewhere like three to six hours total, or maybe even less, like 30 minutes — where you can say, “Hey, this is what it’s really like to do what people do at J.P. Morgan. Am I good at this? Do I like this? And you can try lots of different ones.
Parker Dewey is a fascinating micro-internship provider that does similar paid short-term experiences. When the companies see folks who excel and who like it, they can recruit from students who participate in those experiences. So, it’s definitely a big growing field, and I think everyone would like to see more of that.
Van: Is Parker Dewey creating these micro-internships as a recruiting tool or more like more career exposure?
Paul: I don’t want to speak for them, but I think the idea is really putting the student first, making this an experience that’s student-facing, that gives people who don’t have all the opportunities that I did going to a liberal arts college — you know, people who are at regional publics who don’t have a lot of recruiters coming to their institution — getting that real work experience you can put on a resume, and also an understanding of what is entailed in college.
My publications have used a couple of projects from micro-interns with Parker Dewey, and they did a great job. It was fantastic. And again, low risk for us. Like, let’s throw a little money at basically a freelance assignment and see how it goes, and it went really well. Frankly, one of the students was at Colorado State Pueblo who we probably would not have found otherwise using a traditional process to hire an intern. But I think, yes, to answer your question, this benefits employers too, and it can benefit institutions and colleges that want to offer this experience to their students.
Van: In a way, you almost introduced that individual to the gig economy because you gave him project-based work.
Paul: Yeah, it is a thing. It’s certainly in my life now.
Van: So, Paul, if you have a niece or nephew or children at this moment in time, any thoughts in terms of how they would navigate the transition from education to career?
Paul: My daughter is seven, so I do have some time. But I think it’s a safe bet. You know, things don’t change all at once. Are we going to just hire based on skills via an app instead of a PDF of a resume and a cover letter tomorrow? No. But are the days of a PDF of a resume and a cover letter ending? Yes. So, I do think that some kind of machine-learning-infused scanning for skills of applicants is coming. This is a big part of what I report on, and it’s really hard to see where that change is going to happen.
But, yeah, I think when my daughter is looking at college, I think there will be more experiential learning and, frankly, some of those micro-credentials that you tack on to a degree. Right now, we’re seeing just tremendous interest in digital literacy, data science and other credentials offered by brands like Meta and Google and Salesforce, that have a lot of penetration with people. People trust those brands as knowing a little bit about tech. Tacking some of those on to a traditional degree — whether through the institution or outside of it — will grow in the future.
Van: If I were an English major, for example, and I were to tack some of those industry-valued credentials and those brands, those domain areas on to my degree, at least the AI would be picking up something in more detail in its algorithm than just my English degree. So, it helps round me out and actually gets me found, I would imagine, during the search process.
Paul: Absolutely. And I hate to throw a wrench in the works on that. You know this, Van…HR systems are not ready for that, even more than I think people think. There’s some really intriguing findings from Northeastern. Sean Gallagher’s team there has looked at HR tech and how ready it is to search for skills, to unbundle credentials, and to understand them more in terms of skills, and the results weren’t great. There’s a long way to go. But yes, I think most people are optimistic, or at least pushing in this space, for a way to do a better job than just, again, checking a box with a degree.
Van: I almost wonder — this is Van’s moment of wondering — you know, all these corporations adopted applicant tracking systems, right? And effectively, they screen people out. So, even if Paul would have considered taking a look at John or Joe or Juan or Maria, you can’t because they never even get to your front door. They never even get to your office. You won’t be able to consider them. So, in a way, all the skills-based hiring and all of these things that we’re doing now is almost a remedy to some of the efficiencies that we’ve put in place in the HR process.
Paul: Yeah, and as you know well, with each development comes the risk of unintended consequences of privileging folks who need the least help. That’s a real worry with any of this kind of technology-infused hiring. I do think right now the credentials, speaking broadly, have the most sway by far. I don’t think we’re at a place now where digital portfolios are much of a thing in many industries in hiring. But credentials are – that’s a broad term — and there’s real questions.
I feel like I’m throwing a lot of roses at Google, which is weird, but the Google certificates — and they just dropped a new one in cybersecurity — thousands of people are pursuing the many career certificates they have out now. So, it’s going to be really interesting to see the value in the job market for some of these shorter-term credentials. It’s obviously not just ones from big tech companies. It’s community colleges like the ones in Virginia developing short-term credentials with scholarship money and kind of momentum points for students to help encourage completion. Hopefully, we’re going to really start to see whether or not some of these programs are working for large numbers of people.
Van: So, Paul, I’ve been wanting to ask you this question, and it’s actually about your career as a journalist. Don’t you get to cover anything and everything that you want? So, how do you pick what topic is most interesting at the moment? And tell us some of these topics that you’re looking at right now.
Paul: You know, it’s funny. I think a lot of journalists think about this. Our industry has been disrupted, as you may have heard, in a big, big way, and you could see it coming from a long way off. Even way back when, when I graduated college, you knew that the Internet was going to do something to journalism. The days of me saying, “I’m a journalist who works for X publication” and that’s all you needed to know are over in my career. I have to now spend like fifteen minutes talking about how my newsletter Work Shift fits with the umbrella of Open Campus. It’s all very confusing.
But the real key for me — I’m fortunate in this, and frankly, it has something to do with being later in my career — I’m not beholden to anyone. I am truly independent. There is no agenda here. I’m also not a believer in me being an advocate. I’m a journalist who pursues what I see as what’s new? What’s interesting? What do people in the field need to know or want to know about what’s happening? To me, that’s about following the money and to some extent tracking policy. Those are the two kind of north stars of my journalism.
I just feel like workforce education, the focus on ROI and developments in credentialing is one of the biggest stories of my career. I would say the biggest, right up there with the pandemic. It was a no-brainer for me to pursue this because I feel like it’s where so much of the action is, particularly about low-income Americans who’ve been left behind in education and the job market. It’s hard work to get them to that next level, and that’s where I feel like the story is.
The big challenge, though, is that the clicks and the revenue often don’t follow stories like that. So, as a journalist and an entrepreneur, you have to figure out a way to write about where the really important challenges are in society, but where some of the high-end consumers tend to not be.
Van: So what are some of these specific stories? Can you give us any insights?
Paul: The kind of overarching theme I’m most interested in is where employer and public funding is headed in terms of credentials. Like, are we going to see federal funding for very short-term programs through the Pell Grant program? That’s a big one, as you know, in Washington…the workforce Pell debate.
I’m interested in states like Virginia and how they’re investing in short-term credentials. What data we have and what we don’t. How we can be better about knowing what works for people. That’s part of all of that. Then speaking in the broadest terms, the Learner Employment Record space…are we headed to a world where people can signal what they know and can do in ways employers value? Those are the general areas I’m most focused on.
Van: Well, I get your newsletter at like 5 a.m. every week and so I get to wake up to it and scroll all the interesting articles. If the listeners would like to subscribe, where would they go, Paul?
Paul: Yeah. So the newsletter is called The Job and you can find it at Open Campus or at Work Shift, two publications that publish it.
Van: Fantastic. Let’s close with this: what are you most optimistic about in the next 10 years?
Paul: I do think this is that rare issue that cuts through some of the culture war partisan noise. Sometimes they come at it from different places. I think on the right and in red states, it’s more about economic development and prosperity for people than equity. But it’s really the same thing. It’s really, again, about finding ways to help people see a path and pursue a credential that gets them a good job. I haven’t really seen that much in my career as a journalist where California and Alabama are rowing in the same direction. So, it does give me hope.
This is a big problem as you know, Van. I would put this challenge right up there with the biggest ones facing humanity, which I know sounds a little bit much, but we’re in a society where wealth and income inequality has reached, almost, I would say, a breaking point. Some of the confidence I got to start this newsletter came from CEOs of big companies telling me that society’s teetering here. That this isn’t a side issue for me at a giant trillion-dollar company. This is really something that’s going to make or break our country and the world in the next 20 years where we have to find a way to give people a chance to make it economically. I just feel like if at least it’s caught people’s attention, it gives me some hope that there’s going to be energy to try to do something meaningful.
Van: Well, we’re so glad you’re helping to make us smarter about the possible futures and what we can contribute to that. So, thank you very much, Paul, for spending this session with us.
Paul: Well, thanks to you, Van. The only way I can help make people smarter is by talking to smart people who actually do the work. So, thank you for speaking with me. And to the folks who are listening, please do be in touch.
Van: Absolutely. Well, folks, don’t forget to subscribe. It’ll be in your inbox every week at 5 a.m. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.