What’s college for?

You’ve heard it before: college isn’t for everyone. People who say that often have a pretty narrow definition of “college”, but in reality, postsecondary credentials focus on a wide array of skills and knowledge, come from richly varied types of institutions, and have vastly differing labor market purposes and economic returns. Given this variety, it’s understandable that there’s little clarity about the purpose of higher education and whether or not postsecondary study is the right decision for a given individual. Peter Thiel, who infamously offered to pay young people not to go to college, thinks the system sells itself mainly as an insurance policy but is actually a tournament “in which the intensity of the competition is what somehow validates the tournament.” He points out that confusion about the purpose of college prevents us from designing a system that produces better outcomes for any one purpose.

We often talk about college as an investment decision, that a given program will give a person the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the labor market. Particularly in two-year college systems, there is an emphasis on avoiding enrolling students in programs without a strong return on investment. Limited resources for these colleges and competing priorities can create incentives for a narrow focus on skills for occupations that seem to be growing. While a combination of real-time job opening data and labor market projections can help target programmatic offerings, unpredictable innovations and macroeconomic trends still cause a lot of uncertainty. “[T]he economy bounces all over the place in terms of jobs, particularly for these jobs that we hear are ’hot’ all the time, like tech jobs,” Peter Cappelli explains in an interview with The Atlantic. “The reason that they’re hot is precisely because you can’t predict them.” This is more problematic now than it used to be, because the role of employers in training employees has shifted. Here’s Cappelli:

A few generations ago the employers used to look for smart or adaptable kids on college campuses with general skills. They would convert them to what they wanted inside the company and they would retrain them and they’d get different skills. They’re not doing that now. They’re just expecting that the kids will show up with the skills that the employer needs when the employer needs them.

If we design educational pathways that focus a student too specifically on one career or occupation, we risk developing parallel systems of higher education for students based on socioeconomic background: adaptable skills for the affluent to compete in an ever-changing knowledge economy, and narrow skills for low- and moderate-income students to get a technical job right now. By reducing investment in public education and tying resources to immediate labor market outcomes, we risk pushing colleges into credentialing students with targeted sets of skills that may or may not have much value ten years from now.

How can we prepare students who do not have the luxury of exploration—who need the economic boost of a credential, and as soon as possible, while still making sure their education has long-term value? How can we make sure students are developing the skills they will need to compete in an unpredictable future labor market?

To start, we can make sure that students are actually making their own well-informed choices about what their educational path will be. We can work to ensure that the options a young person has are not limited by their family income by better aligning postsecondary programs (from short-term credentials, to two-year degrees, to four-year degrees and beyond), and by advocating for college affordability, effective financial aid policies, and better support systems for low-income students. We can work to make sure that extracurricular participation and opportunities for job experience are not dependent on family income.

There is no reason not to embed adaptable skill development into technical, career-oriented programs. The way students learn, and the type of thinking they are familiar with, has a huge impact on their preparedness for jobs and future education. A great example of this comes from Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) in Martinsville, Virginia, where students in all programs and disciplines are taught using cooperative learning. This pedagogical method emphasizes active learning where students are interdependent and accountable. The pedagogy, regardless of curriculum, is a form of skills development, with students increasing their capacity for critical thinking and teamwork.

I spoke with Greg Hodges, PHCC’s Dean of Academic Success and College Transfer, about how cooperative learning can prevent colleges from making implicit judgements about students’ capabilities or what type of work they are suitable for. He told me that community college faculty and staff are hungry for better pedagogical strategies; traditional approaches aren’t sufficient for the learning challenges many low-income students who haven’t received a strong education face. When faculty are just given the syllabus and materials and not trained to teach, they fall back on the model of their own education, but often that style does not suit a wide range of student learning styles. Cooperative learning “infuses in students the ability to learn regardless of the discipline,” Hodges says, even for the students who come to PHCC for short-term training. Those problem-solving and teamwork skills are valued by employers, but students also are prepared for more complex and rigorous educational programs.

The stakes, and the pressure, could not be higher. “Community college faculty are being asked to keep the middle class alive,” according to Hodges. The pressure to quickly implement reforms does not leave colleges with much time to prepare for unintended effects on vulnerable student populations. While there is some awareness of those effects, especially right now as the nuances of structural racism are reaching public consciousness, college faculty and staff are afraid to broach the subject and may feel there is little they can do. Shrinking levels of investment in public education and policies that do not adequately support reform implementation are central to the problem, PHCC’s focus on engaging pedagogy offers some hope: previously large achievement gaps along lines of race and income in gateway English and developmental math have narrowed as the college has expanded cooperative learning.

PHCC was recognized this year by Achieving the Dream with the Leah Meyer Austin Award; the college created the Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence to train other community college faculty in cooperative learning techniques. 


Danville, VA: New Leadership for a New Vision

With an economy that grew initially around tobacco markets, Danville, Va., like many Southern cities, flourished as a textile milltown for much of the 20th century. By 2004, decades of slowdown became a full-blown crisis. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, laid off its last employees in 2006. The demise of Dan River Mills altered the economic and social fabric of the community: options for the working class became scarce, the middle class shrank, and young people had fewer opportunities. Today, the median income is half that of the state of Virginia, and only a little more than half that of the U.S. In Danville, as in much of the South, access to opportunity goes up dramatically based on your economic situation, race, and social connections.

The challenge now is responding to rapid and unpredictable shifts in economies and labor markets that make it difficult for young people and community leaders to decide how to invest in their education and skills. Danville is trying to attract and develop new economic drivers with living wage employment, and working to ensure that community members, particularly young people, have adaptable skills to compete in the new economy.

With significant resources in the local Danville Regional Foundation and organized leadership, Danville is better positioned to strategically invest in the community’s future than many places in the South. Still, there are major challenges, including the uncertainty of the new economy, the continued cultural and social divides of the mill economy, and a narrow leadership base. People used to reference the “men at the mill,” as shorthand for the group they saw as in charge, and now they talk about the “boys at the bank.” The old model of leadership in Danville was centered around businesses—the same people who were in charge of major economic entities, like the mills, were the ones involved in community planning. In this short video, Cathy Hill, MDC board member and a vice president at Georgia Power, lays out the importance of expanded leadership and a commitment to finding common language in order to understand common interests:


In both the formation of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation (in the late 1990s) and the Danville Regional Foundation (in 2005), Danville’s leaders have experience engaging in long-term regional planning and local investment. Their efforts have brought about needed improvements in technology, regionalism, education, and collaboration. Current leaders are intentionally engaging and empowering younger leaders who are more diverse and inclusive, hence the Middle Border Forward initiative, which has brought together a group of young leaders to work for more equitable outcomes in the region.

While strengthening the region’s economic base is vital, other Southern cities have learned the danger of focusing too much on keeping and attracting the middle class and not addressing eroding employment security and mobility for youth growing up in low- or moderate-income families. Economic dynamism does not guarantee a broad distribution of opportunity for all young people. As leaders in Danville plan for their community’s future, they must ask themselves who they are building an infrastructure of opportunity for, who is involved in the creation of that infrastructure, and how they can make sure no one is left behind.

For more information on how Danville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people, read our State of the South profile.

A Visit to Danville, VA

A Visit to Danville, VA

In the age of startups, business incubators, and Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship conjures images of computer scientists, high-tech companies, and sleek offices in big cities. But in Danville, Va., entrepreneurship is being promoted as a strategy for building a vital, diversified economy—and attracting young people to the rural region on the border of North Carolina and Virginia.

Like many other cities across the Sunbelt, Danville flourished as a milltown for much of the twentieth century, producing the famous brightleaf tobacco and textiles. Though employment in the manufacturing sector was at its peak in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Danville was hit with rapid job loss and factory closures. By 2004, the crisis was full-blown. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, filed for bankruptcy and in 2006, shut its doors completely.

Today, if you ask Laurie Moran, the president of the Danville-Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, what kind of economy she and other leaders in the area are trying to build in the wake of such loss, she quickly replies with a few descriptive words: diverse, with living-wage work, and with enough opportunities to keep her children in the area.

Small start-up businesses have opened on the historic Main Street in Danville’s downtown district.

While part of the city’s economic development strategy relies on attracting large companies to the area, Danville and the surrounding counties have taken an innovative approach to rebuilding their economy. To ensure that they no longer rely on just one or two primary industries, the region is developing intentional strategies to promote entrepreneurship among its youth and to attract entrepreneurs to establish their businesses in their region. “Right now, we are trying to create a new economy and a new culture for an old milltown at the same time,” says Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF). “Developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem is essential to that. This has the potential not only to attract and generate businesses but also to change the conversation here. One of the issues we have in Danville is an attitude that we don’t deserve excellence. Mediocre is okay in education and economic development. We’re spending a lot of time helping people see what is excellent in our work to promote entrepreneurship.”

The Foundation has been at the center of this effort. Nearly a decade ago, it made a $10 million investment in The Launch Place, which offers business consulting, seed funding, office space, residential subsidies, and other services to entrepreneurs interested in locating in the Southern Virginia region. Last winter, the Launch Place partnered with several members of the Middle Border Forward initiative (a DRF project managed by MDC) to develop Danville’s next generation of leaders, to host a business pitch competition. IdeaFest attracted over 60 participants, including individuals from other entrepreneurship hubs like the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina as well as residents of Danville.

As part of revitalization efforts in Danville, public, private, and philanthropic leaders have put significant investment into infrastructure like this walking bridge to encourage activity in the downtown River District.

But Stauber and other leaders are not only interested in attracting newcomers. They are also investing in the kids born and raised in the region. Recently, DRF and the Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to launch a young entrepreneurs’ academy, an after-school program for middle- and high-school students. Over the course of 30 weeks, students learn what it takes to turn an idea into a business. “They develop business plans, complete market assessments, and ultimately, share their ideas in front of an investor panel,” says Moran. “This is really about helping young people see that opportunities are everywhere if you’re an entrepreneur.”

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.

A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

A Visit to Northern Neck,VA

There used to be so many oysters in Chesapeake Bay that ships would run aground on reefs piled high with them. By the turn of the 20th century, oystermen were harvesting 20 million bushels a year, delivered by steamship and rail to cities up and down the East Coast. But a century later, the oyster reefs have disappeared. A combination of overfishing, pollution, and disease wiped out the bay’s oyster crop. Harvests in Virginia and Maryland total in the tens of thousands of bushels, no longer the tens of millions. An entire industry was nearly destroyed.An effort is now under way to rebuild the bay’s oyster population by reducing pollution, creating oyster sanctuaries, and restoring reefs. And one company in the Northern Neck peninsula of Virginia is doing it box-by-box—cultivating native oysters in wire boxes and floating them in the bay – creating a new supply and market for varieties of the disappearing Crassostrea virginica. It is sowing the seeds (or spat, as oyster larvae are called) for what is hoped is part of an economic revival on the Northern Neck.

The company is the Rappahannock Oyster Co., run by two cousins who are the grandchildren of oystermen. There’s perhaps no better place to enjoy their oysters than Merroir, a restaurant they own in the tiny village of Topping, Va., overlooking the Rappahannock River. We stopped there for lunch while reporting on the Northern Neck, a beautiful and isolated peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, for our State of the South 2014 report.

At bayside tables shaded by umbrellas, Merroir serves the three trademarked varieties of oysters they raise–Rappahannocks (sweet), Stringrays (mild), and Olde Salts (briny)—along with a small plates menu that includes crabcakes, a variety of oyster dishes, and a delicious shucked corn and crab soup. (They all taste even better served with Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, brewed with the company’s oyster juice by the Flying Dog Brewery in nearby Fredericksburg.) The restaurant is luring patrons from as far away as Richmond and Washington, D.C., who want to go to the seaside source and not just to the restaurants the company owns in those two cities. And it serves a growing community of wealthy retirees who are building multi-million-dollar homes on the bay.


Merroir and the Rappahannock Oyster Co. are emblematic of two areas of economic development— aquaculture and tourism— that folks on the Northern Neck are hoping will offset the decline of the peninsula’s seafood, agriculture, and canning industries. But they have a long way to go. Word is that the Rappahannock Oyster Co., which ships oysters to top New York restaurants, can sell as many as they can raise, but raising oysters isn’t labor intensive yet. The hope is that with improved science instruction at local schools, students will be better prepared for college and, perhaps, the nearby Virginia Institute for Marine Science, where they can build careers and new businesses in aquaculture.

In the meantime, as in so many rural places with weak economies, young and working age people are leaving the Northern Neck to find jobs. A repeated concern we heard was about a pronounced population drop of people between 20 and 55 years old detected between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and an average age around 54, compared to a statewide average of 37.5.

We talked to business, community, foundation, and education leaders—and young people—who know they have a big challenge ahead. In addition to demographic, political, and geographic divides across four counties, there’s also a racial one in an area of deep Colonial history that’s the birthplace of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The community is trying to addressing its poverty-related problems with youth programs, an expanded community college, and an initiative called “Visions” that has among its goals to bring the community together to understand the problems that poverty causes and to solve them through education, workforce readiness, and economic growth.

Leaders in Northern Neck recognize that oyster cultivation and destination restaurants like Merroir are not enough. But, like replenishing the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, they know you have to start by rebuilding the foundational reefs on which they grow.

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.