Alumni Look Back In Anger

“He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.”
- Noel Gallagher of Oasis, on his brother Liam

About 75 years before the epic struggle between the brothers Gallagher – including Liam responding to Noel’s soup-slur by posting a video of eating soup with a fork, culminating in Liam’s inspired one-word tweet, POTATO, captioning a photo of Noel’s remarkably potato-like head – there was class struggle. One of the leaders of that struggle was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was exiled countless times. At the height of World War I, he was deported from France to Spain, then Spain to the U.S. So in early 1917, just months ahead of the October Revolution, Trotsky spent 10 weeks living in the Bronx, writing encomia to revolution for a Russian-language socialist newspaper and the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. Trotsky ate his meals at a nearby Jewish dairy restaurant. In an attempt to inspire the waiters to protest their working conditions, Trotsky refused to tip. So the waiters spilled hot soup on him.

Inequality is at the root of much rancor. It’s as true for Trotsky and Oasis (while one Gallagher wrote historic songs, the other was an historic drunk and perhaps root and tuber identifier) as it is for contemporary America where inequality and social and political instability seem highly correlated. The rich keep getting richer while problems keep piling up.

Nowhere is inequality rising faster than in higher education, formerly a safety valve for inequality, currently a stopped-up sink. Rich colleges and universities are getting richer faster in terms of the metrics that are most easily measured and therefore matter most to trustees: endowments and applications. The largest endowments all grew over 30% last year (Harvard 34%, Yale 41%, Cornell 42%, Penn 42%, Dartmouth 47%, UVa 50%, Brown 52%, MIT 56%, Duke 56%, Wash U. 65%). Not coincidentally, applications to these elite schools were also way up (Harvard 42%, Yale 33%, MIT, 66%, UCLA 28%).

Meanwhile, endowment-less institutions – community colleges and regional publics – have seen unprecedented enrollment declines. Since the fall of 2019, community college enrollments are down 14%. Some schools have seen declines of over 30%. Regional publics aren’t faring much better. Last year nearly 3 out of 4 regional publics experienced enrollment declines, with some (Texas Southern, Harris-Stowe State in Missouri) down over 20%. Few have seen enrollment bounce back this fall. Last week Mikhail Zinshteyn pointed out declines at 20 of the 24 Cal State campuses including over 1,000 students at each of Cal State Fullerton, Chico, and East Bay.

Just as Covid has prompted soul searching among the gainfully employed (the Great Resignation), among those who haven’t (yet or successfully) launched careers, it’s prompted job searching. This means two things: (1) in classic postsecondary countercyclical style, prospective students are opportunistically opting for work instead of school; and (2) the bar for enrolling and paying tuition is now much higher. So here’s the new normal: non-selective schools like regional publics and community colleges are in big trouble if they can’t demonstrate employment outcomes discernably superior to jobs currently there for the taking.

While rich postsecondary institutions revel in endowment and application wealth and take comfort in self-selection-driven employment outcomes (i.e., the most talented, motivated, and all too often wealthy and connected students were never not going to get good jobs), administrators at non-elite schools Half the World Away are starting to think about finding career services on the campus map in order to look into this “employment outcomes” thing.

What they’ll find is uglier than Noel Gallagher’s potato head. Right before Covid, the Charter School Growth Fund partnered with Bain to conduct a heretofore unreleased survey of 1,000 young alumni (average age 24) who attended charter high schools like KIPP and Achievement First, 90% of whom subsequently attended college. For those with the good fortune to go on to selective universities, career services had a positive effect on employment outcomes; students who availed themselves of career services reported a 5% bump in employment at graduation. However, at non-selective schools, the opposite was true. The 2019 Bain CSGF alumni survey found that 83% of respondents who did not use career services at non-selective schools were employed upon graduation. But for those who walked into career services, only 66% found jobs. In career services, students hit a wall (and not a Wonderwall).

There are two possible explanations for this counterintuitive result. The first is, again, self-selection: Supersonic students on track to land a job don’t need career services; students who need help are often starting from square one. But the second is that career services at non-selective colleges and universities doesn’t work, particularly for the first-generation and underrepresented minorities who matriculate from charter schools.


Selective schools have a surfeit of quality employers, most of whom (pre-Covid and presumably post) are physically on campus for information sessions and interviews, and most of whom have alumni involved in the recruitment process. Here, career services can achieve some measure of Morning Glory by providing concierge-like services, assisting and matching graduating students to employers.

Non-selective schools have none of the above. At non-selective schools, career services software platforms – Handshake, Symplicity, GradLeaders, or 12Twenty – list thousands of employers and hundreds of thousands of jobs. You know where else you’ll find those same employers and jobs? The Internet. On these career services digital platforms, the responsiveness of employers to non-selective graduates is less like a concierge experience than what they’d face anyway coming in from the Internet’s digital cold, attempting to bypass imposing and typically impassable applicant tracking system gates.

In such an environment, a concierge- Champagne-Supernova-type approach doesn’t work. It’s like a guest asking a hotel concierge to obtain a restaurant reservation when nearby restaurants only take reservations online, no times are listed, and no one’s going to pick up the phone when they see the name of the hotel on caller ID. The 2019 Bain CSGF alumni survey quotes a graduate from the University of North Texas: “We have an online system that gets you access to job openings…it is helpful when it comes to finding lab opportunities and internships, but I would rather have a person to person conversation.”

When there are no actual people from actual employers on the other end – when there’s no one to Talk Tonight – career services ends up looking more like a workforce board. Workforce boards are infamous for posting jobs from employers candidates don’t want and attracting candidates employers don’t want. In attempting to emulate the concierge-like career services model pioneered at selective universities (classic higher education mistake – we know what excellence looks like, let’s do it the same way), regional publics and community colleges are creating a job mirage and contributing to alumni underemployment and anger.


How can non-elite schools catch up? By working harder to create opportunities for becoming. Colleges and universities are in the business of helping students become. And becoming is not only about what students can do. As demonstrated by continued dramatic employment disparities by race and class, too often it has very little to do with what they can do. Becoming is more correlated to opportunity. And playing a limited graduate/absentee-employer matching function doesn’t create much in the way of opportunity.

Non-selective colleges and universities can turn things around by refraining from playing the same game as selective schools. In order to increase employment opportunities for graduates, they should play a different game. Cut out the concierges, stop relying on online platforms, and try one or more of the following, presented in order of degree of difficulty:

While the bureaucratic reflex at career services might resist this burden shifting for fear of job loss, the central function should be refocused on supporting faculty to create and extend their networks so they can help students cut through the digital clutter and be seen and considered by employers. And if these networks fail, Some Might Say devolving responsibility to faculty minimally establishes new coaches, mentors, and cheerleaders who will increase job search persistence, giving opportunity the chance to strike.

So when University of Hawaii proposes limiting tenure to faculty “engaged in direct instruction consisting of active engagement with students,” and declares that faculty need to “benefit students” and “shall engage in service inside the university,” I’m more than willing to Roll With It. It’s belated recognition that while Nobel prizes and citations merit a shaka, what’s more important for the people of Hawaii is ensuring universities once again become an engine of socioeconomic mobility. Faculty who are great at helping students get good jobs may be just as valuable as world-class researchers. Recognizing and rewarding this value-added could help attract more practitioners to campus. Conversely, faculty unwilling or unable to stretch beyond a purely academic comfort zone should consider switching to a profession that doesn't involve daily interaction with students whose primary concern is return on tuition investment and employment.

Fitzgerald supposedly told Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me.” When it comes to rich schools like Columbia, to Hemingway’s response, “yes, they have more money,” we must add “so they can afford to organize career services in a way that’s antiquated and quaint.” And so Sally can’t wait. If non-selective schools want to Live Forever, they’ll begin taking a different approach to helping graduates get good jobs. Otherwise they’re liable to end up in the soup.