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What Counts as Prestigious, Anyway?

The Weekly Dispatch
Flying Drones to Save the Wetlands
Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Years ago, I kicked around the idea of doing a big project about how “higher ed runs on prestige.” I wanted to dig into the way hierarchy is deeply embedded in nearly everything about American colleges — where new Ph.D.‘s get faculty jobs, how grants get distributed, where students apply — and how that shapes both perceptions and reality. Like a lot of amorphous ideas editors have, that notion never took shape.
But I thought about it this week listening to Leah Lykins. We met her last year while doing some public forums in New Orleans, where she’s the co-founder of a fascinating project called WhereWeGo — which puts local training opportunities in front of people in a novel way. She’s trying, as she says, to make it “feel a bit a more like shopping for your life opportunities.” Here’s what people care about, she’ll tell you:
  • How much a program costs
  • How long it will take
  • How much the job pays on the other side — or even better, whether you get paid along the way
Here’s what they care a lot less about: what exact organization is offering that training program, whether it’s a community college, a nonprofit organization, an employer, or a union. “Prestige” — whatever that might mean — isn’t high on the list.
This week she spoke on a panel about career education at the Education Writers Association national seminar, moderated by Jason Gonazles, our local reporter in Colorado at Chalkbeat.
To Lykins, prestige should be about distance traveled, and she doesn’t mean in miles. She’s talking about where do people start out and where do they end up.
Is this program taking someone who doesn’t even own a laptop and getting them hired at an $80,000 software developer job? “Is this about people who didn’t have WiFi and now they’re supporting their entire family,” she said during the panel. “That’s prestige. That’s really cool. And that’s what we should start to get really obsessed about.”
WhereWeGo doesn’t give people a career quiz or use an algorithm to match them to programs. As Lykins put it, they’re trying to do what people can’t do easily themselves: compare options all in one place. “Because frankly, if you’re trying to find a program you’re most likely going to see — because of basically digital marketing and Google ad words — you’re going to see stuff that isn’t the best for you first.”
At the same, she acknowledged that exactly how programs get marketed matters — and could be done a lot better.
“There’s a program down the road that is 'Coastal Studies and GIS Technology,’” she said. “It’s two years long. It doesn’t have a really fun name. But when you explain to students that it’s really Flying Drones to Save the Wetlands, they perk up. Or instead of ‘aerospace manufacturing technology,’ let’s call it ‘build the rockets that are going to go to Mars.’”
“We need to talk about careers in a way that’s just as aspirational as young people are.”
+ Interested in more on this issue? Get our newest newsletter, The Job, about higher ed and the workforce.
+ Related: Low-Skill Workers Aren’t a Problem to Be Fixed, by Annie Lowery in The Atlantic last month. The phrase low-skill “positions American workers as being the problem, rather than American labor standards, racism and sexism, and social and educational infrastructure. It is a cancerous little phrase, low-skill. As the pandemic ends and the economy reopens, we need to leave it behind.”
Covid & Careers
UTEP commencement in 2018
UTEP commencement in 2018
Commencement ceremonies are coming back this spring — but that doesn’t mean the job market is back to normal for new college graduates. 
In El Paso this week, Jewél Jackson, our reporter there with El Paso Matters, looked at how the pandemic poses a challenge for career centers. She talked to Andy Chan, a vice president at Wake Forest University and outspoken advocate for thinking differently about how colleges should prepare students for careers. 
“I don’t want the whole idea of career offices to die but rather the brand of what career services represented before,” he told Jewél. That means scrapping the expectation that “the school is supposed to have all this stuff for me and I step in and you hand it to me over a desk.”
That was already an outdated idea, but the pandemic has created even more uncertainty, Chan said. Employers’ hiring schedules have been thrown off by Covid creating a “wild west mentality” for graduates and companies. 
His advice: stay in motion.
“Uncertainty leads to indecision, which leads to waiting, which leads to missing opportunities,” Chan said.
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