Morgan Stanley
  • Now, What's Next? Podcast
  • Jun 9, 2021

The Re-Education of Higher Learning

Hosted by Sonari Glinton

Transcript

Jacob Sarasohn:

So I packed one travel sized suitcase, and I got on a plane, I was the only person on the plane. And I flew home from Chicago. And as soon as I landed, and I wheeled my suitcase into my parents' house, I realized, this is real, this is something bigger than a little break from school.

Sonari Glinton:

That's Jacob Sarasohn.

Jacob Sarasohn:

I'm currently 21 years old. And I go to school at the Art Institute of Chicago,

Sonari Glinton:

Or at least he did. When classes first went online last spring, Jacob and his friends were thinking.

Jacob Sarasohn:

Let's just get through this month, we can all handle it and we'll figure it out. And then next year it'll be different.

Sonari Glinton:

But it wasn't. A weekend into Zoom classes in September. And he began to weigh his options.

Jacob Sarasohn:

I thought that I could do something else with my time that's more valuable. It wasn't worth paying that much money to take classes that I felt were subpar. Not because of the professors, or the students, or the content, but because of the delivery.

Sonari Glinton:

So the idea of you stopping school, in my mind, was kind of crazy because I think of all the angst and anxiety that I had about you choosing your damn school. You know what I mean? You should know, Jacob's mom is a very good friend of mine and he's kind of like family.

               

Sonari Glinton: And you get into the frigging Art Institute of Chicago. And now you're like, "Nah, this is not interesting. I'm going to go do something else." So what did you decide to do?

Jacob Sarasohn:

I decided to take a course to become an EMT, which is a little different from art school. I will say.

Sonari Glinton:

A little different?

Jacob Sarasohn:

A little different.

Sonari Glinton:

Well I want to be clear, Jacob left in-person art school because he felt it was too dangerous to be in classrooms during the pandemic. Then he decided to become an emergency medical technician. He wanted to learn. He just didn't want to do it over a computer screen.

Jacob Sarasohn:

I'm doing CPR for the first time, or I'm trying to help out on a patient that was pulled from a vehicle in the emergency room.

Sonari Glinton:

Now those are lessons that you definitely won't get in an art school studio.

Jacob Sarasohn:

There's those moments where I'm sweating and stressing out, but it's never a yearning to go back. It's just a broader understanding of how privileged I am and just expanding my landscape of how I see things.

Sonari Glinton:

I have to admit. It is hard for me not to admire that choice. We all know that college can lead to great things. Better earning potential, a longer healthier life, even having healthier children. Then, of course, there's learning for the sake of learning. The intellectual and spiritual growth that happens. College, it can make us better people and better citizens. But when the pandemic pushed college into a long pause, it made way for big questions and new insights that could change how we think about higher education for good. From how we teach.

Elizabeth Grimm:

I acknowledged my own personal vulnerability in ways that I never would have done in class before.

Sonari Glinton:

To the rewards of living on a college campus.

Brenda A. Allen:

Those are life skills. Negotiating a bathroom and you share it with 16 other women. If you can figure that one out, you can probably close the biggest deal ever in business.

Sonari Glinton:

To the deeply held beliefs about what it takes to succeed.

LaShana M. Lewis:

The first thing that comes to my head is that people lie to me.

Sonari Glinton:

I'm Sonari Glinton, and on this episode of Now What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley. We're looking to get schooled on higher education.

Brenda A. Allen:

These are good questions because these are things that people are really grappling with right now.

Sonari Glinton:

Now will Jacob continue being an EMT or will he go back to school? Well, we'll find out about that later in the show. One thing is certain, Jacob is not going back to Zoom classes. I don't blame him. But would he have stayed if he could have gone to an online course that made him feel something like this?

Bushra Shaikh:

I would be engaged, energized. When I imagine international law, I just imagine a bunch of happy students. I just think of having this motivation to learn, but also this positive energy. That's so hard to get across on Zoom.

Sonari Glinton:

That's Bushra Shaikh. She's a long way from her home and family in Kashmir. She's finishing a very strange senior year at Georgetown university in Washington DC. Now the course Bushra was talking about, international law, is taught by Dr. Elizabeth Grimm.

Elizabeth Grimm:

I've taught it for many years, many different semesters, many different iterations. And I thought that had been working really well. If I had not had the forcing mechanism of COVID to change the class, I would not have changed the class in the way that I did.

Sonari Glinton:

Dr. Grimm taught the course last fall when the long-term reality of the pandemic really started to set in.

Elizabeth Grimm:

I think all of us, at the beginning of March, went into it saying, "All right, we've got this, we're tackling this." And that adrenaline very much had evaporated, I think, by August of 2020. And given rise to frustration, and given rise to loneliness.

Sonari Glinton:

Now that summer, instructors at Georgetown got training in online teaching.

Elizabeth Grimm:

In every single training session, we received this guidance of, just so you know, students' attention span on Zoom is eight minutes long.

Sonari Glinton:

Now as she sat through those Zoom classes, Dr. Grimm had to think about how her own lectures, that clocked about 50 minutes, would translate in this new world.

Elizabeth Grimm:

I spent the whole summer basically, about an hour or two hours every day, reworking the lectures into about 10 or 15 minute videos. Because let's be honest, unless Beyonce records a 15 minute video, I'm not going to watch a 50 minute video. And so I'm not going to ask my students to do that either.

Sonari Glinton:

Writing, recording and editing video lectures wasn't easy at first.

Elizabeth Grimm:

Well lets say, as we're recording this, I'm looking at my paper planner, my multiple colored post-it notes and colored pens. I mean, I am very much a child of the 1880s as far as technology is concerned.

Sonari Glinton:

But Dr. Grimm realized that teaching online during a pandemic was about much more than the course material.

Elizabeth Grimm:

Georgetown university is a Jesuit university, and so one of the things that that means is that at the core of our mission, at the core of what it means to be at Georgetown, is this concept called cura personalis, and so that means caring for the whole person, taking into account their individual stories, individual needs.

Sonari Glinton:

I was educated by the Jesuits myself, and the tradition is that who the graduate is at graduation is as important as any skill-set.

Elizabeth Grimm:

And I think in the old world, for me what would be important is both the grasping of the details of the law and facts and various key tenants and debates. And also the ability to critically analyze and ask deeper questions. But in this new world, I think for me the emphasis on empathy, the emphasis on humanity, became even more important. I would say almost of equivalent importance to simply just the course material.

Sonari Glinton:

So when Bushra came to Dr. Grimm's international law class in September, 2020, it felt and look different. Well, for starters, Dr. Grimm split the class of 50 students into two smaller groups. So there would be fewer faces on those Zooms. And then she sent out short video lectures and readings in advance.

Bushra Shaikh:

And then when we came to class on Wednesday, then we'd get straight into it. We'd hop on, talk a little bit about how our week was going and then we'd dive into the material. And then everybody had something to say, so we spend a lot more time analyzing than just taking down notes.

Sonari Glinton:

And to Dr. Grimm, the difference was stunning.

Elizabeth Grimm:

It is hard for me to even put into words, the depth of engagement and the richness of conversations. It was categorically different.

Sonari Glinton:

But it wasn't just because her students had watched her bite-size lectures in advance. Now, remember when Bushra mentioned...

Bushra Shaikh:

We'd hop on, talk a little bit about how our week was going, and then we'd dive into the material.

Sonari Glinton:

Well, that was part of Dr. Grimm's larger design to keep her class feeling happy and connected.

Elizabeth Grimm:

There's such an importance of the sound of a classroom and so I wanted to replicate that. So we would hop on, we would even talk about mundane things about what they did over the weekend? Things like, what did they have for breakfast? What were crazy things your pets did?

Sonari Glinton:

This is really important. Professor Grimm doubled down outside of her lectures. She hosted online tea times, happy hours, there were chat rooms for grad students and peer meetings for her undergrads. She checked in with each student directly and even held weekly, ask me anything sessions.

Bushra Shaikh:

It was everything from, oh gosh, I feel like I picked the wrong major and it's too late to change now to, should I get a pet cat? Stuff like that.

Sonari Glinton:

Professor Grimm, who lives on campus with her husband, three kids and a dog Crouton, even offered her students the option of meeting for socially distanced walks.

Bushra Shaikh:

You would schedule a time usually early in the morning and then you kind of go on this 45 minutes, 50 minute walk just around the neighborhood, talking about everything from our life stories, her life story, just in an environment that doesn't feel like a pressure cooker.

Sonari Glinton:

The pressure cooker of the pandemic changed professor Grimm too.

Elizabeth Grimm:

I acknowledged my own personal vulnerability in ways that I never would have done in class before. I should note that throughout the entire fall semester, I was in a high risk pregnancy and I contracted COVID in November. And I would have never shared details like that with students in class before, but I wanted them to know that they are not alone, and that sense of fear and confusion that they felt about their own families and their own communities was a sense of fear and confusion that I felt as well. And I think that helped them gain a greater comfort, a greater understanding, and a willingness to take risks in ways that I don't know that they would have taken in a brick and mortar classroom.

Bushra Shaikh:

It was a hard class, she did challenge us, but it was so worth it. I like to tell people that it was kind of my highlight of last semester and one of the best I've taken at Georgetown. It didn't feel like a Zoom class.

Sonari Glinton:

But what happens when classes don't have to be on Zoom anymore? Dr. Grimm says the tea times, the book clubs and the dog walks are going to continue and possibly videotape lectures as well. But our big lesson from the pandemic was...

Elizabeth Grimm:

Recognizing that empathy and humanity and vulnerability, they are not ancillary to the teaching and education process, they're central to the teaching and education process. And I think I recognized that at a sort of base level before, but this experience has really embedded those lessons for me, both as a professor, as a mother and as someone who cares very, very deeply about her students and her community.

Sonari Glinton:

Now if we are lucky, we all have at least a few teachers like professor Grimm. For me, it was Selma Coates, may she rest in peace. And in the best possible scenario, we find a program or maybe an institution that's a good fit for us, one that meets our needs socially, academically and financially. But trust me, that is a lot to ask. Students have to think really hard about what kind of higher education experience, what actually serves them best. Now it took LaShana Lewis a very long time and a lot of determination to find the right fit for her. Even though she found her calling when she was only eight years old.

LaShana M. Lewis:

So I first got my hands on a Commodore 64 that was used and junk from one of my mom's family friends. And it really started getting me interested in electronics in general and computers specifically. And then that's when I was told about how people go to college for these kinds of things.

Sonari Glinton:

LaShana grew up in East St. Louis and her mother had her at 15. LaShana was the type of kid that in fifth grade, she had already won her first scholarship. For years, she knew more about computers than her teachers. She got accepted to all the colleges she applied to and a recruiter convinced her to choose a college in Northern Michigan.

LaShana M. Lewis:

I was well aware that this was supposed to be the gateway for me to not be poor anymore, not to be in the Projects anymore.

Sonari Glinton:

College was her ticket out, that's what they told her. But when she had trouble with coursework and asked instructors and classmates for help, she kept hearing things like this:

LaShana M. Lewis:

Maybe you shouldn't do this major at all. And at the time I didn't know what implicit bias was, so I didn't know that at the time they were saying that because I was black, because I was a black female trying to be in something that was stereotypically white male, but that's pretty much who I had as classmates.

Sonari Glinton:

LaShana, the only black woman in her program, was at a loss. And she turned to counseling where she was told:

LaShana M. Lewis:

This is what discrimination is and that's what you're going through. And I had to do all of this learning. I'm what? 17, 18, 19 years old, away from home for a long time, for the first time, and I had to figure all this out. And then finally talking to my counselor and she's like, you're out of money, you are stressed out, you're going through discrimination, you need to possibly consider leaving. So I did.

Sonari Glinton:

How did that moment feel for you, leaving college?

LaShana M. Lewis:

Oh, it felt like giving up. I felt like I failed. If you could paint a Scarlet F on the front of my clothes or on my forehead, that's literally what it felt like.

Sonari Glinton:

Even though you had been in a school and you're the one black girl in the computer science program. I mean, even after the therapist tells you, Hey look, this is what discrimination. You still felt like you had failed and not your teachers or-

LaShana M. Lewis:

The system failed me. Yeah.

Sonari Glinton:

Right.

LaShana M. Lewis:

My mom was actually very supportive because she knew how depressing this would be for me. But everyone else from within my community was like, oh, you're leaving, you're never going back. You're just going to be a dropout.

Sonari Glinton:

Despite her strong skills and three and a half years of college, as well as experience doing an office internship, without a degree, LaShana couldn't get an IT job. But she could get a job driving high school students to an after-school tutoring program. She somehow managed to turn that into tutoring and then eventually with a lot of work, a job at a different college as the IT help desk manager.

LaShana M. Lewis:

And I kind of got the same spiel again. You are really good at what you do, but unfortunately you don't have a bachelor's degree, so you can't move up certain ranks. So I said, you know what, let me sit down, take some courses…”

Sonari Glinton:

LaShana was back at college, this time in St. Louis, 16 years after she'd left six credits short of graduating. LaShana's instructors noticed her skills immediately and told her to apply to a new apprenticeship program called LaunchCode. It did not take long before she got noticed there as well.

LaShana M. Lewis:

This facilitator is like, "When can you start?" And I'm like, "Start what?" She said, "When can you start your apprenticeship program to be a systems engineer at MasterCard?" And I was like, "What are you talking about?"

Sonari Glinton:

Just two months after LaShana started as an apprentice at MasterCard, they offered her a full-time job. Seven years later, LaShana is now the director of IT at Givable and the CEO of her own consulting firm. Her experience taught her that traditional college is definitely not the best fit for everyone.

LaShana M. Lewis:

I would be remiss to still send people of color down a path that could end up in financial ruin for some, when there are other viable paths that... With LaunchCode I paid $0. I didn't pay anything. The apprenticeship actually paid me. I was paid at that time, what? $15 an hour. Which ironically, was more than the job that I had left. And I was a manager at that job.

Sonari Glinton:

Now for her, the apprenticeship program was life-changing in more ways than one.

President Barack Obama:

Let me wrap up with just the example of one person, a woman named LaShana Lewis.

Sonari Glinton:

In 2015, President Barack Obama invited LaShana to Washington for the launch of TechHire, a talent initiative that built on the success of LaunchCode. And as she sat in the audience, he suddenly called her by name.

President Barack Obama:

Where's LaShana? She's here today. There's LaShana. Now...

LaShana M. Lewis:

And he points me out in the audience. And I stand up and in the whole entire room wrenches and looks at me. I blank out because I was just like, everything is kind of in slow motion.

President Barack Obama:

So we got to create more stories like LaShana's.

Sonari Glinton:

The TechHire initiative was all about pipelines, helping people like LaShana get past barriers keeping them out of the tech industry. Now, companies like Google, Apple, MPR, and IBM, no longer require all applicants to have degrees, especially for tech jobs.

LaShana M. Lewis:

Going through that whole entire process, the first thing that comes to my head is that people lied to me. They lied to me about all of these things that they need and the type of person that I needed to be in order to get to this level. And it made me feel sad. I still tear up at this point to say, 20 years of just going through all of this. And what I knew was actually more than what I needed to know to do the job that I was doing.

Sonari Glinton:

These days, LaShana thinks it's incredibly important to share her story with kids.

LaShana M. Lewis:

And when I tell kids the story and I tell them the Obama story, I say, "I didn't get there using traditional ways," because we need to let people know what our stories are. So I tell them, "Whatever you're doing, as long as you've taken the time to think about it and explore other options, I say to keep going."

Sonari Glinton:

When you think of how much LaShana had to push through to keep going, you’ve got to wonder about all the people who were just like her who didn't, who couldn't, or who were told not to. You have to think about also, how much we all lost. And yet, the US still lags behind when it comes to earn and learn programs like the one that launched LaShana. But there is some hope. After winning bi-partisan support in the house of representatives, the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 is now working its way through the Senate. Now, if it passes, that means three and a half billion dollars would go to creating 1 million new apprenticeship opportunities.

               

The pause on this academic year has given a lot of students and their parents who pay all that tuition, the time to take LaShana's advice and explore other, maybe better options. But what about colleges? What have they learned about higher education this year?

 

Sonari Glinton: Take me on the quad on a crazy spring day. You know that first spring on a college campus?

Brenda A. Allen:

Yeah. Yeah. So, I expect to see some group of students coming back and forth from the library, which is right across from the quad. There'll be another group of students who will be coming out of the student success center because they've been in tutoring or they've been in advising. There'll be another group. Now we have Bluetooth speakers on the yard somewhere, doing the Wobble. Another group somewhere, throwing a frisbee.

Sonari Glinton:

What's the Wobble?

Brenda A. Allen:

You don't know the Wobble? We have to show you the Wobble. You have to come party on the yard. Come on.

Sonari Glinton:

I did not go to a historically black college. I need to learn the Wobble. I need to know how to step.

Brenda A. Allen:

You got to learn the Wobble. It's the new version of the electric slide. Come on. You got to know electric slide.

Sonari Glinton:

That's Dr. Brenda Allen. She's president of Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It's a public, historically black university where all the students, in normal times, live on campus. Now, Dr. Allen taught at Yale and Smith. She started in administration at Brown University. She wanted to bring what she learned in the Ivy leagues back to Lincoln, her Alma Mater.

Brenda A. Allen:

I'm telling you, I loved it here. I loved every bit about it. And again, I tell my students, many of the skills that I use today in this job that I have, I began to hone those skills on this campus. Planning, balancing, work and school.

Sonari Glinton:

Listening to Dr. Allen. I can't help but wonder how things might've been different for LaShana if she had gone to a black college.

Brenda A. Allen:

What really matters, I think, is how a student feels on a campus. And I think it's also what they may need, both personally and professionally. So, at historically black colleges, one of the things that's really important about this environment is that it's a very supportive environment. And I think that's consistent across most HBCUs.

Sonari Glinton:

Now let's face it. When it's the right fit, a college campus can be transformative if not downright magical. But during the pandemic, well, it's been empty. And that quiet has given us time to look at what's working and what isn't.

 

I wanted to find out what Dr. Allen learned from this past year and how she saw the experience of college changing. She says skill-specific training, like what LaShana had, has its value. But for Dr. Allen, the real value of college, in person, not virtual, is that it introduces you to ideas and whole possibilities you could never have considered.

Brenda A. Allen:

I don't think anything can take the place of, for example, a student just wandering through our student success building, seeing a sign that talks about study abroad and just wandering in. And the next thing you know, they're spending a summer in Ghana, or in Egypt, or in Ireland, or something like that. The serendipitous sort of things that can happen, I think in a real environment, it's harder to do that in the virtual world.

Sonari Glinton:

I mean, I really wonder about this because with the move to remote learning, in some ways doesn't that open up the question about how much of that serendipitous experience do I need? Do I need four years of it?

Brenda A. Allen:

And so again, I think that there are some people who will make the choice and they can thrive in a partial environment or do some years online, do some years on campus. Some people do community college first and save money and then transfer and finish their baccalaureate degree at a four-year college. And for many, having four years on a campus can be the most transformative experience that they can have.

               

I also was a statistician for awhile, and I look at this from the perspective of data. And not every online environment is the same, but disproportionate numbers of African-Americans have gone to online schools and the graduation rates, the completion rates for them is just not as great.

Sonari Glinton:

You know what I can't help thinking about? That. I keep thinking about the students and graduates all over America, carrying a crushing 1.7 trillion with a T dollars in student debt, a number that goes up every single semester. And some of those students, just like LaShana, end up with debt, but no degree.

 

Now, no one felt good about paying full or even discounted tuition for Zoom courses over the last year. But are there any signs that a year of remote learning is making colleges rethink the return on investment they're offering? Not counting scholarships and financial aid, a new student at Georgetown, the private university where Dr. Grimm teaches, will pay around $75,000 for a year of tuition of room and board. And a year at Lincoln, a public university?

Brenda A. Allen:

Full cost of attendance, tuition, fees, room and board is about $22,000. So in the scheme of things, we're still pretty affordable.

Sonari Glinton:

But then we need to think about it though. I mean, at $22,000 for serendipity, that's a lot of money.

Brenda A. Allen:

Well, it's really about the total experience. These are good questions because these are things that people are really grappling with right now. So surely you can probably deliver education much more cost-effectively if you do it virtually, but it's really not the same. And I think as a residential campus, we offer a special experience that really our data shows helps individuals to go on and become very productive citizens. So Lincoln University, for example, is number one in Pennsylvania for moving students from the lowest socioeconomic level to the highest. They graduate and are able to be employed and earn at the highest socioeconomic ladder. That's social mobility.

Sonari Glinton:

Mobility, transformation, belonging, employment, there are no easy answers when it comes to evaluating the impact of college or a higher education on the quality of our lives.

 

Sonari Glinton: Is there a question I should've asked you?

Brenda A. Allen:

No, but you were hard. You were pushing me. So, I appreciate that. I think I am walking away really still committed to my thought about the importance, but you got me thinking about some other things that I need to consider in this as well, so I appreciate that.

Sonari Glinton:

Growing, reconsidering our ideas. These are all things that are supposed to happen in and around college, but they happen off-campus as well. I remember Jacob, my friend's son who opted to step away from online college to become an EMT. Well, he's going back.

Jacob Sarasohn:

I think a post-pandemic life for me is ideally... it's finishing school. But I think it comes with all these experiences and understanding that this little bubble that I've existed in that I want to go back to is so small compared to all of the whole world.

Sonari Glinton:

You know what the irony of that is, knowing you a bit, I feel like it took leaving school for you to grow up. You're like a grown-ass man now.

Jacob Sarasohn:

I think so. I think so. And for me, there are so many things that college teaches me that I couldn't learn anywhere else. But college is a very small part of learning how to be an adult and how to be ready for a world where you're not a student.

Sonari Glinton:

That's called growing up.

Jacob Sarasohn:

But I wasn't supposed to grow up. I had another year of this, another year of not growing up and here we are.

Sonari Glinton:

And here we are, the pandemic has forced a lot of us to grow up and adapt regardless of how old we are. It's also taught us a lot about higher education.

               

We saw during all this, that some colleges and universities, even ones with long histories and traditions, they can adapt and some can even do it quickly. And perhaps they will take the lessons that they learned over the pandemic and make higher education even more accessible, more connected to the needs and dreams of this disrupted generation of students and those still to come. For their sake and for our sake, I really hope they do. I'm Sonari Glenton and this has been Now What's Next? An original podcast from Morgan Stanley. On the next episode, working nine to five, how we got the 40 hour work week and why it is not working for us. Thank you for listening.

We look at how the pandemic is changing higher education, from how we teach, to our deeply-held beliefs about what it takes to succeed, to questioning the benefits of being on campus.

Host Sonari Glinton checks in with college student Jacob Sarasohn. When his art school classes went virtual, Jacob decided to put college on hold and become an Emergency Medical Technician. We find out how that experience changed him and if he’ll go back to college. At Georgetown University we meet Bushra Shaikh and her professor, Elizabeth Grimm, who found ways to make their zoom class meaningful and effective. Tech CEO LaShana M. Lewis had a difficult time finding her place at college and ended up leaving without a degree. She struggled for years to land a job in her field, until an apprenticeship program offered a breakthrough. Finally, Sonari speaks with Brenda A. Allen, President of Lincoln University, a historically Black university about how a shift to virtual school during the pandemic has brought home the value of the campus experience.