Get smart fast, vol. 13

Don’t believe the hype about the declining value of college.

Despite the bad vibes around higher education, the fastest-growing occupations that do not require a college degree are mostly low-wage service jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement. Negative public sentiment might dissuade some people from going to college when it is in their long-run interest to do so. The potential harm is greatest for low- and middle-income students, for whom college costs are most salient. Wealthy families will continue to send their kids to four-year colleges, footing the bill and setting their children up for long-term success.

Indeed, highly educated elites in journalism, business, and academia are among those most likely to question the value of a four-year degree, even if their life choices don’t reflect that skepticism. In a recent New America poll, only 38 percent of respondents with household incomes greater than $100,000 said a bachelor’s degree was necessary for adults in the U.S to be financially secure. When asked about their own family members, however, that number jumped to 58 percent.

Why it matters: Multiple things are true at once. College is often a high-stakes gamble, especially for lower-income students. Many students would benefit from alternatives to a conventional four-year degree, and some lucrative careers don’t require them. Many jobs that do require bachelor’s degrees probably shouldn’t. And a college degree remains a critical ticket to economic security for young Americans. Any serious attempt to overhaul students’ paths from high school to college needs to contend with all these facts.

Key Findings

Enrolling in an LA-area charter high school led to increased standardized test scores and college success, especially for students who enrolled in the University of California system. Charter school students did not see a boost in their high school GPAs.

Academic leniency hurts disadvantaged students and leads to wider achievement gaps, a new working paper finds.

People from both political parties aren’t necessarily wed to “local control” in public education governance.

A Dallas bonus-pay system designed to lure top-performing teachers and administrators to low-performing schools in exchange for higher salaries produced sizeable gains that vanished as soon as schools’ performance improved and pay incentives went away.

A California framework that replaces some traditional advanced math courses with courses in “data science” could result in fewer students graduating prepared to excel in STEM majors.

Banning mobile phones in schools appears to yield substantial increases in student test scores.

Numbers to Know

237: Median number of notifications a typical American teenager receives each day on their cellphone.

25: Percentage of those alerts that pop up during school hours.

0.7: Percent increase in the number of teachers employed in U.S. public schools during a five-year period ending in 2021-22.

4: Percent decrease in the number of students enrolled during that same period.

40: Minimum number of states, out of 50, where chronic absenteeism is on the rise.

2: Number of states, out of 25 reported, where test data show math performance exceeding 2019 levels.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)