I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I invite your thoughts (and reveal mine) on where education funders should be placing their next bets. I also highlight calls for a national reckoning on low-income families’ reliance on a pricey federal loan program and for colleges to put more ed-tech training into teacher education.

What should philanthropy be funding in higher ed right now?

While I was catching up with a bunch of sources at the Jobs for the Future Horizons conference, in New Orleans last week, a philanthropy leader whom I consider an astute observer of the higher-ed scene asked me a question that stumped me at the time: What should education philanthropist be funding right now that they aren’t?

The question caught me off guard because funders have already put their mark on many aspects of the college-going experience: student success, open educational resources, basic needs, business operations, transfer pathways, online education, and paying for college, among them. I’m sure most of those topics could benefit from more support and evaluation, but once the question was before me I dearly wanted to come up with a fresh answer. Some of that was my own ego. Some of it was realizing that this might actually lead to new grants for worthy endeavors.

In my moments of hesitation, I got the OK to crowdsource the question to readers of The Edge. So here’s your opportunity, too. If you’ve got ideas, please send them my way so I can share them in a future newsletter.

I didn’t have my own answer at the ready last week, but it’s since become very clear: More research and pilot projects to help develop the role of “navigators” for the education system. This isn’t my idea alone, and it’s not all that new. Six years ago, I wrote a story on the idea that I’m still mighty proud of, except for my culturally insensitive use of the term “education sherpa,” rather than “navigator.” (People often use the word as a synonym for guide as a noun, but the Sherpa are a people — members of a Tibetan ethnic group.)

The arguments for education navigators then are all the more compelling today, as new forms of education and training are becoming available and more students of all ages are taking circuitous routes through postsecondary education and into the work force. Presentations during the Horizons summit further drove home the salience of the idea, including talks showcasing work-based learning programs that offer college credits and college programs that feature embedded, industry-certified credentials.

I’ve heard occasional talk about navigators over the years, especially from advocates for adult and less-traditional students. But I’m not aware of any recent push as formal as the proposal once floated by Rich DeMillo, the founder and former executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He had asked the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration to explore ways of funding “a new category of educational general practitioners not beholden to any specific institution,” to guide students toward the right educational options for them at the right times in their lives. DeMillo didn’t have a specific model in mind, but today there are even more examples (especially with the expansion of mentorship and coaching programs) than when I wrote about the proposal in 2016. There’s more potential for confusion among students, too, unfortunately.

So maybe the time is right for some philanthropies to push forward on this navigator idea. Or maybe on yours? Send your suggestions my way.

Quote of the week.

“Covid was the death knell of the commute to college for the nontraditional learner.” —Rachel Romer Carlson, chief executive and co-founder of Guild Education, speaking at the Horizons conference last week on what she sees as the growing preference for online education, especially among working adults

Check these out.

Here are some education-related items from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • Many educators say their teaching-degree programs didn’t prepare them to integrate digital tools into their teaching or to vet tech products, according to a report in Education Week’s Market Brief. So now the U.S. Department of Education, the International Society for Technology in Education, and several accrediting groups are urging colleges with teacher-prep programs to sign a new Digital Equity and Transformation Pledge to show their commitment to adding such training to their curricula.
  • We know college enrollment has been on a two-year decline, but the picture isn’t monolithic. As the Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe highlights in an Econofact blog post, weakness in this spring’s enrollment was particularly evident among students 25 years old and older, reversing the pattern seen a year ago. And the spring-2022 declines were particularly evident among women, also a reversal of the prior year’s enrollment patterns. “Ebbs and flows in labor markets,” Grawe writes, may explain some of those enrollment shifts.
  • The median debt load among holders of Parent PLUS loans for students who’ve completed their education is roughly $29,600, but many borrowers struggle to repay the loan within the standard 10-year period. In fact, according to a report by the Century Foundation, many parents spend more years paying off those loans than they spent living with and raising the child for whom they borrowed. The report, “Parent PLUS Borrowers: The Hidden Casualties of the Student Debt Crisis,” notes that growing numbers of lower-income and low-wealth families have become reliant on the PLUS-loans program, even though it was designed with payment terms more suited to higher-income families. “The nation,” the report argues, “needs a larger reckoning on the underlying causes of dependency on this program among families and the colleges their children attend, and the lasting damage that college-related debt burdens cause families, especially families of color.”
  • Almost every discussion about careers in high-skilled trades and technical education seems to cite welding as an example of a program deserving of respect, but there’s another field that’s been far more neglected: carpentry. Racism and sexism are among the factors driving “the great carpenter shortage,” according to this article in The Hustle, as well as pay levels that aren’t as generous as for fields like plumbing and electrical work. But a paucity of training programs in schools and colleges is also a factor.

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 have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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