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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: 3 Ideas to Reduce Educational Disparities Post-Pandemic

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Notes from the (virtual) road.

I’m not traveling these days, but I’m still seeing and hearing lots worth sharing. Here are three emerging conversations.

Is it time to revive the support — and the ethos — of the post-World War II GI Bill? That’s one of the ideas that stuck with me after the virtual forum I hosted last week on innovation and leadership (you can still watch it on demand).

Our discussion hit on several important themes, among them the need to rethink tuition pricing, as Brad Wheeler of Indiana University argued, and the value of colleges’ developing partnerships with outside parties “that can give you great velocity early,” as suggested by Rovy Branon of the University of Washington.

But I keep thinking about what Catharine (Cappy) Bond Hill of Ithaka S+R put forward about the need for broad collaboration between higher education and the federal government, essentially a renewed commitment to “educating more people” from all walks of life. In response to additional public support, colleges could be asked to make certain changes to prevent costs from going up. At the same time, Hill said, “Well-resourced schools should really step up and do everything they can to help the larger ecosystem, not only their own institutions.”

This is where the “ethos” piece comes in. I asked Hill, herself president emerita of the pretty-well-resourced Vassar College, if such collaboration had ever happened before. She barely hesitated before reminding us all of the transformational era on campuses following World War II. “Institutions stepped up and opened seats,” she said. “It was hugely important for our society and our economy.”

What about a national “tutor corps” that puts new college graduates to work assisting students in elementary and secondary schools? Could that be the “win-win” solution to unemployment hardships facing graduates and pandemic-related gaps in children’s educational progress, especially those from low-income families?

We’re hearing lots of calls for new public-service programs right now. But credit Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, for this particular idea, which he first thought of about five years ago and then resurfaced in a recent interview with Chalkbeat. Research shows that tutoring is effective, and with the economy reeling, college seniors are going to have a tough time once they graduate. So yeah, win-win potential for sure.

After talking with Kraft last week, I realized that a tutoring corps could also help solve a host of other problems, including an insufficient pipeline for new teachers (that efforts like Teach for America haven’t quite fixed). In many communities, Kraft told me, “It’s hard to get a local base of teacher candidates.” Still, there’s evidence that once people get involved in local schools, he said, an interest in education sticks with them. And many young people, said Kraft, “are looking for experience after graduating that allows them to make a difference.”

As cool as this idea seems, Kraft allows that there are still a few kinks to work out, not least of which is finding funding to pay thousands of tutors $25,000 to $35,000 a year. “The reality is, it’s costly,” he said. Given the condition of local and state budgets, this would probably need to be a federally backed program. There’s also the challenge of connecting tutors to students, especially if schools are still virtual in the fall, and of ensuring all tutors are qualified and capable.

Another big kink is that Kraft is still a full-time professor and not a social entrepreneur. But he’d love to see someone take up this idea and turn it into a reality. Any takers?

Is this a time for states to be more vigilant about students’ needs as the likelihood of college closures grows? Last fall, I was struck by state-level attention to concerns about colleges’ closings in New England. That wave of concerns was driven mostly by demographics. Now, as a result of the pandemic, those worries have spread across the country, and even the National Governors Association is stepping in. “Connecting systems to protect students” should be states’ role, according to a set of recommendations on managing institutional closures that the NGA just put out in conjunction with New America.

The document is short but direct, with suggestions for how states can use their consumer-protection powers and regulatory authority to ensure that, if colleges shut down, their students aren’t left in the lurch.

Quote of the week.

“Watch out for the people who seem to gloat over the fact that their decades-old predictions of large-scale college closures are coming true. It’s like a dam bursting and then claiming you accurately predicted a wet spring.”

— Jon Boeckenstedt

Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, in a tweet from a Twitter thread lamenting that Covid-19 will be the lever that will undo many small colleges across the country.

Cengage and McGraw-Hill called it quits on their merger. Now what?

On Monday, almost a year to the day since two print- and digital-textbook giants went public with their intention to merge, they announced that they were scrapping the plan. The merger had drawn criticism from consumer and open-access groups, libraries, and at least one higher-ed association, over concerns that the newly formed company would hold too much control over the textbook and courseware market. The companies said that the divestitures of products sought by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of its approval process made the merger financially unattractive.

So what comes next? On a conference call with analysts after the announcement, Cengage executives said they would be focusing on products like their all-access pass to electronic textbooks. No surprise there. Colleges’ response to the pandemic this spring has highlighted the importance of digital capabilities, and Michael Hansen, Cengage’s chief executive, argued that any faculty members or administrators who still believed they could get by with a traditional textbook model “have been proven wrong in a very short period of time.”

Does that mean blue skies ahead for commercial publishers with digital chops? Not necessarily. For one, the open-source movement is also seizing the moment to remind professors and institutions of the growing availability of free- and low-cost digital materials. (See, for example, this from California State University on its Affordable Learning Solutions effort and this in the New England Journal of Higher Education.)

Even more striking to me were Cengage’s internal projections about how much higher-ed enrollment could drop in the 2020-21 academic year in the markets where it sells, including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. It predicts that enrollment will fall by more than 20 percent, because of drop-offs in international students and decisions to forgo college next year because students anywhere don’t want to attend online.

That “north of 20 percent” is just a guess, of course. But in the face of so many feel-good, “We’ll be open on campus this fall” pronouncements, I found this stark corporate perspective a sobering, if dire, contrast.

Readers respond.

One college president took issue with my newsletter a few weeks ago in which I questioned the merits of relying on employer-paid tuition when tens of millions of people are losing their jobs. His gripe wasn’t exactly with me, though. It was more of a plea in support of those programs. Jayson Boyers, president of Cleary University and president-elect at Rosemont College, said that establishing such a relationship with an employer creates a “transformational virtuous circle of dialogue between the business and higher ed.” He means real-time industry content for the college and space for discussion of the employer’s needs. “To dismiss the value of the great conversation the tuition benefit started between the two sectors would be a mistake,” he said. I don’t dispute that. I just worry that employers won’t feel they’re in a position to carry on with the programs.

A more recent newsletter, about “the higher ed we need now,” prompted a response from Ed Balleisen, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, about its Bass Connections program. It puts students and professors together in teams to spend a year developing solutions to societal problems that, as he put it, “defy disciplinary boundaries.” (Two examples: smart toilets that can detect infectious disease and using applied math to quantify gerrymandering.) The program is already a model for interdisciplinary education at dozens of other institutions and, as he noted, could be emulated by still more.

In that same newsletter, I asked what new models of leadership and governance you all were seeing in response to the pandemic. Please share what’s out there — or should be.

Final thoughts.

We’re all hearing a lot about families’ adventures in home-schooling. The story that grabbed my attention this week came via NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. It was a delightful interview with Jeremy Grabbe, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and his three co-authors on their new study, “Trustworthiness of Online Covid-19 Preventative Messages.” The delightful bit: The co-authors are his seven-year-old triplets, Regina, Alexander, and Daniella, whose frustrations over social-distancing messages inspired the study. You can hear the interview here (trust me, skip the transcript and listen). And be sure to check out the paper itself, not only for the elegant charts, hand-drawn in crayon, but also for the listing of the authors’ academic affiliations.

OK, you all know the drill. Please keep staying safe, sane, and humane. And while some may disagree, I hope you’re still with me on Team #StayAtHome.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.