On the last afternoon of our road trip to talk with Americans about higher education, Sara and I stopped at Tulane University in New Orleans — the wealthiest, most selective of any of the places we visited all week.
As we walked by The Commons, a brand-new dining center, I’ll admit I felt at home. My daughters go to colleges like Tulane, and, years ago, I went to a place like Tulane—rich, private institutions where half of the students can afford to pay $60,000 a year for the privilege.
But now, at the end of this trip, I saw this campus through the eyes of everyone we met over the past 1,500 miles. And it looked like the Taj Mahal. Gleaming and polished. Global. Powerful.
The banners welcoming us to campus make that clear:
- “No. 4 Happiest Students”
- “Top 25 Most Innovative Schools”
- “Top Producer of Fulbright Students”
- “#1 Producer of Peace Corp Volunteers”
Tulane is renowned for its commitment to service in its hometown, especially since Hurricane Katrina (there’s a banner for that, too: “Number one engaged in the community”). But like any top research university, it’s so much bigger than its neighborhood. Even the languages (German, Chinese) and snippets of conversations were different than what we heard elsewhere:
“If I go abroad for fall semester …”
“Do you want to be pre-med?”
“Just fly first-class.”
Campuses like this, I know, are what a lot of us see in our mind’s eye when we talk about college. I often do. But deliberately focusing for even just a week on thinking expansively about higher-ed was eye-opening.
“College" can be a tricky word. It’s like “lunch.” We all agree that it refers to a mid-day meal, but beyond that? It’s so many different experiences: a convenience-store hot dog, the leftovers from the night before, the fancy expense-account restaurant.
As we drove, Sara and I talked about what jumped out to us in our dozens of conversations. Rising to the top, we determined, was the notion of utility. College, for just about everyone we spoke with, was a tool. On the other hand, “status” was an idea that never got broached.
No one talked about “elite” colleges or even “admissions.” The Ivy League never came up, other than a T-shirt in a shop window in Oxford, Miss., proclaiming Ole Miss as “Harvard of the South.” 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. We soon realized we were like beachcombers with a metal detector. These stories 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 restaurant, 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.
When we cooked up this idea we called it our “back-to-school” trip partly because it was at the end of summer but more so because we wanted to take ourselves to class, to understand how Americans perceive these institutions in their lives.
Our glimpse into their concerns and dreams was fascinating. Now we have other questions:
How can we do reporting that better serves the people we met? And in a nation where colleges are everywhere, where higher ed matters to communities, where it shapes so many lives, what does it mean that we have so few journalists dedicated to understanding it and holding it accountable?
We have some specific story ideas from eight days on the road, and we’d love to hear the ones
you think are getting missed.