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In 2013, the Lewis College of Business in Detroit shut down, and put itself up for sale. The asking price was $3.2 million. Three-point-two million dollars is not very much for a whole college. That’s what the basketball coach at the nearby University of Michigan makes in one year. But apparently that’s all the Lewis College of Business was worth. It was a small private school, the first and only historically Black college or university in Michigan. H.B.C.U.s have been getting more attention lately, but again, this was 2013.

D’Wayne EDWARDS: Funding wasn’t as supportive for H.B.C.U.s as it’s been in the last few years, and this was a smaller school, so it received a smaller piece of the pie.

That is D’Wayne Edwards. He and his family recently moved to Detroit. As we’ll hear today, he took a personal interest in the history of the Lewis College of Business. He tells us it was founded in 1928, in Indianapolis, by Violet Lewis.

EDWARDS: She was one of three Black women to found an H.B.C.U., one of three. I didn’t know about her. I fell in love with her and her story. She started the school on a $50 loan, and she borrowed typewriters to teach Black women the skills to work in corporate offices, because we weren’t allowed to do that at that time. 

Relocating the college from Indianapolis to Detroit had worked out well. By the middle of the 20th century, the auto industry was massive. It’s easy to forget now, but in terms of commercial muscle and innovation, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its time. There were a lot of good jobs.

EDWARDS: The first Black office employees at General Motors and Ford in Michigan were all Lewis College of Business students.

Lewis was never the kind of college that made headlines or made any Top 10 lists; few people outside of Detroit ever heard of it. But it worked. It prepared Black Detroiters for decent-paying office jobs. At its peak in the 1980s, Lewis had 550 students. But as the U.S. auto industry and Detroit began to decline, so did the Lewis College of Business. Government funding started drying up, and in 2007, the school lost its accreditation, which meant students couldn’t get financial aid.

EDWARDS: Ultimately, the doors closed because enrollment started to be reduced.

In closing its doors, the Lewis College of Business was not alone. Hundreds of American colleges have been shutting down, especially since the financial crisis of 2008. Many others have consolidated. In one single year recently, the number of four-year public universities fell by 2.3 percent, and the number of community colleges fell by 2.7 percent — again, that’s a one-year decline. Over the past five or six years, U.S. colleges and universities have lost around 1.5 million students. What’s going on?

Catharine HILL: A major challenge for these institutions is increasing costs at a time when family incomes aren’t going up for the students that they’re trying to recruit. 

Catharine Hill is an economist and a former president of Vassar College.

HILL: Everybody’s trying to figure out ways in which they can get their costs down and by consolidating, you can hopefully experience some economies of scale.

But consolidation can create its own problems — like more students per faculty member, and fewer resources to go around.

HILL: It’s buying us some time, I think, for innovating and doing things differently in the longer run. 

What is the long run for higher education in the U.S.? If we were asking that question 10 or 15 years ago, the answer would have been easy: “Things are looking up,” we would have said. Enrollment is up. Investment is up. Belief is up — belief that college is easily the best route to achieving the American Dream. But today, it’s a different answer. For the first time in modern history, overall college enrollment is down. Belief is down. And if you’re a college graduate looking at the size of your student loans, you’re probably feeling down too. This is the final episode in a series we’re calling “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.” So far, we’ve told you how American higher education has two distinct models.

Ruth SIMMONS: One model is about eliminating people so that there is a special class of achievers at the highest end. The other model is about making sure everybody gets through. 

We told you how that first model, the elite model, has been accumulating ever-more resources while educating an ever-smaller share of U.S. students.

Morty SCHAPIRO: Educating a very small sliver of the American population who already get tremendous resources allocated to them.

Those elite universities are generally thriving; demand for admission has never been higher. But what about everybody else? What about the less-prestigious privates; what about the four-year publics; what about the community colleges and trade schools, the H.B.C.U.s? Today on Freakonomics Radio, we take a look at this second model of higher ed., and why for so many people it is no longer working.

Donald RUFF: To see $100,000 as a debt burden is daunting. 

We look at why men in particular are skipping college.

Amalia MILLER: Typical boy behavior doesn’t fit as well with good student behavior.

And we find out if the Lewis College of Business can make a comeback.

EDWARDS: All we did was borrow from nursing schools and welding schools and electrical schools.

Do you still believe in college? We’ll find out, starting right now.

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If you add up all the students at all the colleges and universities in the U.S, you’ll get to roughly 17 million. Fewer than 10 percent of them go to one of the elite schools at the top of the pyramid. The majority attend what are called mid-tier public or private four-year schools. About 25 percent attend a community college or other two-year school — although nearly half of all students start out at a two-year school. And nearly 10 percent go to for-profit colleges. Of the total undergraduate population, around 53 percent are non-Hispanic white, while 21 percent are Hispanic, around 15 percent are Black, and just under 8 percent are Asian. Maybe those numbers surprise you a bit, maybe not. But here’s a number that certainly surprised me: Nearly 60 percent of all college students today are women. That’s an all-time high. And remember what we told you earlier, that U.S. colleges and universities have lost about 1.5 million students in the past several years? Well, men accounted for 71 percent of that loss.

SCHAPIRO: Well, it’s certainly a big change, but not all that unexpected. 

That’s Morty Schapiro. He’s an economist who studies higher education, and since 2009, he’s been president of Northwestern University. He’ll be retiring later this year. Decades ago, Schapiro predicted that the gender makeup of universities was getting flipped.

SCHAPIRO: Part of it was change in labor markets and change in female labor-force participation rates. So it wasn’t that hard to predict the so-called feminization of the academy, but I’m not a sociologist. I can’t really tell you what’s happening to these poor men and what’s happening to their image and why their college-enrollment rate has not increased the way it has for women. 

Stephen DUBNER: I mean, are you concerned, because we do see research on the deaths of despair, longevity declining, suicide, O.D.s, and so on. Wouldn’t one argue that the gain in female students can be a strong positive, but that the loss in males could be a strong negative and maybe something should be done about that?

SCHAPIRO: Yeah, I agree. One of the things we used to tell all the liberal arts colleges was, “Start a football team.” There’s sort of a cliff you can fall off once you become 60-40 female-men. It becomes exponentially more difficult to recruit men. So, one reason why some really small schools have football teams is because that’s 70 men right there. And if you’re talking about a liberal-arts college of 1,600, you only need 800. You get almost a tenth of that just from your football team. Then you add in your ice hockey team and men’s lacrosse, the so-called helmeted sports. 

It wasn’t always the case that college men were so hard to come by. If you go back to 1900 or so, there were only around 250,000 Americans enrolled in college, and the overall population was about 50-50, male-female. Most of the men were getting bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges, many of which were all-male, including all the Ivy League schools. Many of the female students were in two-year teachers’ colleges; at the time, education was one of the few professions open to women. And around 25 percent of women in college back then attended women’s-only colleges, most famously the Seven Sisters that were meant to parallel the men’s Ivy League schools; the Seven Sisters were Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley.

HILL: Vassar was founded to be a wonderful liberal arts institution for women who didn’t have the opportunity to go to the schools that were all-male at the time, in 1865. 

That, again, is Catharine Hill, a former president of Vassar, which is in Poughkeepsie, New York, just up the river from Manhattan.

HILL: And it decided to go co-educational in the late ’60s. 

The late 1960s, that is.

HILL: This is a time when many schools were still single sex, particularly the ones in the Northeast. And the women’s colleges and the men’s colleges were recognizing that high school students were telling them they didn’t want to go to single-sex schools anymore.

At one time, there were more than 250 women’s colleges in the U.S.; today, there are about 30. So, the change at Vassar was pretty typical.

 HILL: Coming out of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, there was a real shift away from previous notions of what was appropriate and not appropriate. The world was just changing very rapidly.

Part of that change, as Morty Schapiro mentioned earlier, was that more women were joining the workforce. And part of the reason for this was the widespread availability of birth control. But also, more women were attending college generally. While the gender split was around 50-50 back when only a handful of Americans went to college, that dynamic had shifted starting in the 1930s and even more after World War II, when returning soldiers used the G.I. Bill to go to college. Suddenly, male students outnumbered females, 2-to-1. But over time, that heavy male imbalance began to erode, and then flatten — and ultimately, reverse. If current enrollment trends continue, we’ll soon reach the point where for every man who receives a college degree, two women will do the same.

MILLER: I think this is a huge, huge change.

That’s Amalia Miller. She is an economist at the University of Virginia.

MILLER: Why might more women choose to go to college than men? As an economist, the way you think about it is thinking about the net benefits, the costs and benefits of that decision. So, the benefit side of college could be the earnings you get as a college graduate, where the cost side is the earnings you don’t get, that you would have gotten. And it could be that that’s higher for women than for men. If you think about some of the non-college jobs in the service sector that women are concentrated in, these are some really low-paying jobs. Blue-collar occupations or jobs that paid a decent wage that didn’t require college, a lot of those were more male-dominated. 

In other words, a man who doesn’t go to college might get a job in construction that pays well, whereas a woman who doesn’t go to college would be more likely to work in retail or perhaps as a home-health aide.

MILLER: It could be that even if college women earn less than college men, it was still more worth it for women because that gender gap was smaller. I think the problem with that explanation, though, is it doesn’t explain the increase for women compared to men in recent decades, where it doesn’t seem like blue-collar work has had great growth in terms of number of jobs or wages. 

So, Miller went looking for a deeper explanation. She and two co-authors, Suqin Ge and Elliott Isaac, recently published a paper which found that college may produce bigger benefits for women than men. One outcome they measured was future earnings, for men versus women who attended an elite university.

MILLER: There’s no effect on earnings from attending a more elite school for men once you control for applications and admissions. But we do find a significant effect of school selectivity on women. And then when we look deeper into this effect for women, we see that it is coming from including part-time and non-working women. So, women who attended a more selective school for college are more likely to participate in the labor force. For women, we find that attending a school that is more selective leads to a 14 percent increase in earnings. 

In other words, the female wage premium isn’t necessarily driven by having a more lucrative career; it’s driven by college-educated women going from not working or working part-time to working full-time.

MILLER: So, the question is, does this return to greater selectivity also apply to a return to schooling at all? And I don’t think that that’s a crazy leap to make, it’s just another logical step.

Miller and her co-authors found another significant result.

MILLER: What we find is that there’s a significant decline in women’s likelihood of being married in their late 30s if they attended a more elite school for college. If we think of marriage as a positive outcome, then this might suggest a bad outcome. On the one hand, there is this career advancement, but it happens at the expense of family formation. These women are less likely to marry, but when they do marry, they’re marrying men who are more educated.

So that’s one possible explanation for the current gender gap on college campuses: women simply have more to gain by going to college — especially if they are career-oriented. But Amalia Miller has another very different argument.

MILLER: The other argument that I give when people ask me about this is you have to behave well in school. You have to have good grades. These cultural attitudes about good students and then other cultural attitudes about gender and sort of what’s acceptable behavior for boys and girls. Typical boy behavior — or behavior that for boys is socially rewarded — doesn’t fit as well with good student behavior. 

This claim may resonate for anyone who has ever been a boy or parented a boy. And there’s good evidence that the gender gap in education starts way before college. In a 2013 paper by the economists Nicole Fortin, Philip Oreopoulos, and Shelley Phipps, they looked at high-school G.P.A. distribution for girls and boys from the 1980s to the 2000s. Here’s what they found: the most common G.P.A. for girls shifted over that time from B to A; the boys’ G.P.A. stayed at B. One label that’s been attached to this phenomenon is “leaving boys behind.”

SIMMONS: I think the problem is the way we treat our boys in K-through-12. 

That’s Ruth Simmons. She rose from a sharecropping childhood in Texas to become the president of three very different institutions of higher ed: Smith College in Massachusetts, a women’s school and member of the Seven Sisters; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a member of the Ivy League; and most recently Prairie View A&M, an H.B.C.U. back in Texas.

SIMMONS: Boys often get into trouble in school. They get very negative messages, often, in school. They turn away from some of the advantages of school because of those negative messages. The way that we are orienting ourselves toward particular behavior of children and rewarding children who are quiet and submissive and do everything that we want them to do — that’s a formula for girls, okay? Because we tend to be socialized in our families to do exactly that, to be obedient and to not resist what we are told to do and so forth. Naturally, the one thing girls are good at is staying in school, and they can keep going because that’s what we’ve been told that we should do. Boys are not quite the same. 

If boys aren’t being set up to succeed in K-through-12, it would follow they aren’t being set up to succeed in college either. And there’s another recent change, in college admissions, that could be exacerbating the shortage of male college students. Here’s Zachary Bleemer, an economist at Harvard who studies educational and income mobility.

Zachary BLEEMER: In 1996, California passed a ballot proposition that prohibited the use of race-based affirmative action at the University of California and all public universities in the state of California. 

Consider the effect at U.C.L.A., one of the most selective schools in the U.C. system.

BLEEMER: The year that affirmative action stopped, the Black and Hispanic population of U.C.L.A. fell by 60 percent. 

That was in 1996. Between 2013 and 2020, U.C.L.A. expanded by 3,000 students; 90 percent of those new spots went to women. But it isn’t just Black and Hispanic men who were skipping college. According to a Pell Institute analysis, lower-income white men are less likely to go to college than their Black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts. There is one group of men who attend college at rates even higher than women: gay men. More than half of all gay men in the U.S. 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. As the Notre Dame sociologist Joel Mittleman put it: “If America’s gay men … formed their own country, it would be the world’s most highly educated by far.” But fewer than five percent of men in the U.S. identify as gay, so for the rest of the young men who aren’t going to college, but might benefit from it — what should be done? Coming up:

SCHAPIRO: I mean, look. I know how hard it is. 

HILL: What we need is some innovation that would help us educate more students at a lower cost.

EDWARDS: I just need to figure out how to make it free.

And if you missed the earlier episodes in this college series, you can find them here, or on any podcast app.

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When you’re young, whether or not to attend college is one of the first big choices you actually get to make. 

RUFF: High school was mandated. But when you go to college, people have made a conscious decision to elevate their lives by leveraging education. 

That is Donald Ruff. He is the interim C.E.O. of the Eagle Academy Foundation, in New York.

RUFF: The Eagle Academy Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with a mission to educate and empower young men of color. 

They operate five college-prep schools in New York City and one in Newark, New Jersey.

RUFF: Honestly, we saw what was happening in our communities with the young men in particular, not just the graduation rates, the high incarceration rates, as well as the influences of some of the more negative elements, including gangs. 

Their New York schools are part of the city’s Department of Education — which happens to be run by the Eagle Academy’s former C.E.O., David Banks. But as Donald Ruff tells us, his schools are different from the standard public school.

RUFF: One of the things that we wanted to do is actually create a school and a culture where young men could feel safe, where young men can authentically just be themselves, be boys. 

Another big priority is making sure their graduates get into college. In New York City, nearly 60 percent of all public-school students go straight to college. But that number is much lower for Black and Hispanic students, in New York and elsewhere.

RUFF: Just going back to 2019 as an example, the college enrollment rate was about 37 percent for Black students, 36 percent for Hispanic students, and 41 percent for white young men. And at that time, our enrollment rate was at 73 percent.

So Eagle Academy is plainly getting results. But things have been harder recently, especially with the pandemic. Ruff says the young men he educates are increasingly turning down college. Why?

RUFF: Honestly, I think it’s the sticker shock. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know, as someone who grew up low-income, to see $100,000 as a debt burden is daunting.

Ruff is a New Yorker himself.

RUFF: I actually went to public school for junior high school, and I was discovered and recruited by a program called the Oliver Program, where they take high-achieving, low-income students of color and provide them with a full-ride scholarship to attend private school. I went to the Brooklyn Friends School. And I ended up at Oberlin College, which was an incredible experience for me as well. 

At Oberlin, he double-majored in history and African-American studies.

RUFF: I didn’t even know I was poor until I went to private school. It was a shock to my system. And if I’m being honest, I’ve probably lived a lot of my early years, after I graduated from high school and college, with a level of survivor’s guilt and survivor’s remorse. I don’t think success should be a lottery. And when I compare my school experience with my friends at the time, there were some savage inequalities, which actually fueled me to do the very work that I do today. Just seeing the price of college. I remember when we were first taking a look at financial-aid packages, and my mother was stating how a year of college was more than what she made in a year. And just having those type of conversations makes you think a little bit differently. 

He says that type of conversation today, among Eagle Academy students, has become even more intense.

RUFF: Students are making different decisions because from an affordability standpoint, they don’t believe that they could afford it. Not that they’re incapable of achieving and doing well in college, but okay, four years of my life — I could be earning versus accumulating all of this debt. What is it really leading to? 

Throughout this series about college, all the economists we’ve spoken with have preached that a college education is perhaps the single best long-run investment you can possibly make. But Donald Ruff’s students don’t always buy that argument.

RUFF: They’re seeing other examples, where guys who have gotten degrees are now underemployed or unemployed. It doesn’t make sense to them. 

A college graduate is much more likely to be employed than someone who doesn’t go to college, and they earn more too. That said, there’s no guarantee, especially these days. Around 40 percent of recent college graduates are technically “underemployed,” meaning they have a job that doesn’t even require a degree — which also means it probably doesn’t pay very well. And there are other reasons to think about skipping college.

RUFF: Google has been a major disruptor with their certification programs. So a student who’s interested in technology, “I don’t really need college. I can actually earn now and get these certifications and end up with a pretty good-paying job.” Colleges can’t continue to have these archaic degree programs. They have to figure out, how do they have modern credentials and certifications where the students who are graduating are now pipelined into employment and there’s not a skill deficiency.

And some Eagle Academy graduates tell Donald Ruff they’ve got different plans entirely.

RUFF: “Hey, listen, I can invest in cryptocurrency. I can be a Instagram influencer.”

HILL: What we need is some innovation that would help us educate more students at a lower cost. 

That, again, is the economist and former Vassar president Catharine Hill.

HILL: We need to figure out how to offer a better-quality education at a lower price point. 

About ten years ago, it seemed that had already been figured out — at least if you were watching CNN.

Soledad O’BRIEN: The president of this new online partnership, which is what they’re calling it, Harvard and M.I.T., says, “This is the biggest change in education since the printing press.” Is he overstating it?

Steve PERRY: Not in the least. The way in which we educate will forever change. It has forever changed. Online education, it’s coming into its own. 

A batch of startup companies were promising to make a college education accessible to anyone with an internet connection. One firm, Coursera, began offering online courses from name-brand schools like Princeton, Stanford, and Penn. They were called MOOCs, or “massive open online courses.” As the New York Times put it, in 2012, they would “[open] higher education to hundreds of millions of people.” They were also supposed to drive down the cost of education, which for decades has been rising way faster than inflation. Why have college costs increased so much? In retrospect, there are a lot of reasons. Many schools added layers of administration that didn’t used to exist. As college itself became more popular, it also became more of a consumer good, which meant competing for students by offering better dorms, better food, bigger fitness centers, and more extravagant extracurriculars. The federal government also began making more loans available, which gave colleges the leeway to raise tuition further. But also, the primary mode of classroom education — a professor up front, a bunch of students in their seats — that didn’t change much, and therefore higher ed didn’t take advantage of new technologies to become more productive, which is what happens in most industries. Colleges may hire a lot of adjunct professors to save on costs but even so: They’re still paying humans a relatively high wage to perform a task that isn’t becoming more efficient. Economists call this “cost disease” — when productivity doesn’t keep up with cost. Teaching students online, however — that was supposed to solve this problem. It was scalable, it was efficient, it was cheap — it was perfect! There was just one thing: most people don’t like it. The best evidence for this was the Covid-19 shutdown.

Pano KANELOS: The whole world went online, and education went online, and we learned fundamentally that it just doesn’t work. 

That is Pano Kanelos, who used to be president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

KANELOS: Online education just doesn’t work, whether it’s for K-through-12 or in higher education.

That may be an overstatement — but there is evidence that online schooling doesn’t do what its boosters said it would. Some research has shown that students who go to class in-person do better on several dimensions than the ones who study online: The in-person students get better grades, they’re more likely to do the follow-up coursework, and they’re more likely to graduate. And some of these are randomized studies, so they’re not just measuring the differences between the kind of students who choose in-person attendance over online. And there’s another piece of evidence in favor of in-person attendance — it’s what economists call “revealed preferences.”

Miguel URQUIOLA: There are some corporations around Midtown Manhattan that are not fully back in person, right? 

Miguel Urquiola is an economist at Columbia who studies higher ed.

URQUIOLA: On the other hand, if you go to a campus like Princeton, everyone is back in person. And to me, that reveals that what they’re selling is, in part, a personal experience, and that’s what people want to buy.

So, if online learning isn’t the answer, what is? Pano Kanelos has an idea. He thinks he knows why so many fewer people are enrolling in college these days, especially young men. One of the main promises of a college education is that it opens your mind to new ideas, new bodies of knowledge, new ways of thinking. But he says that on most college campuses, that promise isn’t being kept.

KANELOS: I’ve spent a few decades in higher education, and I’ve had literally dozens of conversations with students and faculty who have felt the walls closing in the classroom or in the ambient culture of their institution. The statistics are out there. Sixty-six percent of students in higher education say they self-censor.

“Self-censor” as in not speaking their minds out of a concern they’ll be singled out as intolerant or politically incorrect. And yes, the statistics are out there. The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology recently published research which found that more than 80 percent of Ph.D. students were “willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars.” Meanwhile, more than a third of conservative professors and Ph.D. students say they have been “disciplined, or threatened with discipline, for their views.” It has long been established that college administrators and faculty members lean overwhelmingly left, so we shouldn’t be surprised they create environments conducive to students who do the same. And if you’re asking why college enrollment has been falling, especially among young men — well, in addition to all the reasons we’ve already heard about, including cost, one reason may be that a lot of potential college students simply feel unwelcome on most college campuses. And so Pano Kanelos is doing something about that.

KANELOS: The University of Austin is a university that’s in the process of being developed and built in Austin, Texas. It’s going to be America’s newest university.

And Kanelos is its first president. The University of Austin is presenting itself as a college devoted to liberal ideals of free speech as opposed to wokeism and political correctness.

KANELOS: Look, universities will never be perfect places. I think what we need to do in higher education is make sure that we’re looking at these trends with our eyes wide open and doing what we can to minimize the pernicious effects of a culture that might be trying to disallow certain ideas or silence folks or punish especially young people, students, for things that they may have said that are out of tune with prevailing orthodoxies. There are heartbreaking stories out there. And I can’t imagine something we should be taking more seriously than making sure that our students have the ability to be intellectually risky, to express themselves sincerely, to be wrong, to stand corrected, to correct other people. That kind of robust exchange of the things that we think we know or do know or believe to know, that’s how we learn, both individually and as institutions. 

But Kanelos says he also wants to reform the business side of higher ed.

KANELOS: Higher education is locked in the iron triangle of finance. That is that the whole financial model is built upon three points. One is collecting tuition. The other is philanthropy. And the third is grants that come from outside. Each of those is problematic right now. Tuition is rising much more rapidly than families can afford. The grants and things that come from the outside are inconsistent. Philanthropy is declining. I think you have to radically reduce the operating expenses of the institution. Every single blade of grass that’s mowed, every single sushi bar, every single fountain, all of that is paid for by students. Administrative costs are vastly overblown. I mean, the recent article that Yale now has as many administrators as undergraduates — it’s fine, they’re Yale, I mean, it’s okay. I don’t know what those people do. I mean, who’s the institution serving at that point?

SCHAPIRO: Well, look, I think there are real issues of freedom of speech, independence, and dialogue. 

That again is Morty Schapiro, the longtime president of Northwestern University. So what does he think of the new University of Austin?

SCHAPIRO: I kind of chuckled when I saw the whole thing. If you’re going to try to create a school, you probably don’t do it in the most rapidly rising real estate prices in the world, Austin. Look — I know how hard it is. This is my business. It’s hard to create a university, and it helps to have a couple of hundred years of history there.

Whether or not it’s successful, the University of Austin is pursuing one traditional model of the American university: a high-minded exploration of big ideas. In concept at least, this fits into the elite, competitive model of higher education. But that’s only one of the models we’ve been talking about during this series. What about all the other students, and potential students, who are looking for a more practical college experience? What if there was a place that combined a traditional college environment with a practical certification program — and what if the education was free?

EDWARDS: I didn’t go to college. There was no money. No money for me to go to college. 

That again is D’Wayne Edwards, whom we met at the start of this episode. He lives in Detroit now but grew up in Los Angeles, the youngest of six kids raised by a single mom. He’d always been a talented artist, and he loved designing sneakers.

EDWARDS: I discovered kind of late in my senior year I wanted to be a designer. And I didn’t know that you needed a portfolio. My guidance counselor didn’t know that. She actually discouraged me from being a designer, telling me that no Black kid from Inglewood would ever design shoes for a living.

DUBNER: As someone who grew up without college as an option, if you had not had this drive and talent for designing sneakers, what do you think you would have wound up doing?

EDWARDS: In Inglewood? Eighteen is a win if I can get there, alive or not in jail. Twenty-one? A miracle if I’m not dead or in jail. I have some friends that are not here anymore. I have some friends that are just getting out. That’s just part of growing up.

But thanks to his talent, and with the help of some teachers, Edwards took a different path. He went on to become one of the top shoe designers in the country. He spent many years at Nike, working with Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony; he got more than 50 design patents. Along the way, he started hearing from kids who loved sneaker design as much as he did:

EDWARDS: That was the first time they saw someone who looked like them and they were just emailing me saying, “Hey, I really want to be a designer and do you have any tips?” I saw myself in them, and I started mentoring kids, and those kids would go to college and then they would become my interns and then they would become Nike employees, and they are sitting next to me drawing shoes, professionally, getting paid. And that to me mattered a whole lot more than any athlete I ever worked for, or any entertainer I ever worked with. 

In 2010, after a long stretch at Nike, Edwards took a sabbatical and he created a course on shoe design at the University of Oregon.

EDWARDS: That was my first time going to college — was teaching, so I’d never been there as a student. I crafted this two-week program. And it was two weeks because in real time, that’s how much time we had to design a shoe, from start to finish. I was like, “All right, let me design this course through the lens of either you’re going to love this or hate it because it’s so much work and it’s intense.” Crafted the two-week course, flew in 38 students. It was 14 days, 12 to 14 hours every day, straight through. We didn’t take a break. And the kids loved it. They didn’t want to leave.

Edwards loved it too. He wound up quitting his job at Nike; in partnership with the University of Oregon, he started the Pensole Footwear Design Academy. That’s P-E-N-S-O-L-E.

EDWARDS: So, I was born with the gift to draw anything I could see. And ever since I was a little person, I was using a No. 2 pencil. And when I wanted to create an academy of my own, I started thinking of names and I was like, “Edwards Academy doesn’t sound right. D’Wayne Academy doesn’t sound right.” I looked up the word pencil and the phonetic spelling was in P-E-N-S-O-L, and then I was like, “Well, it’s close to ‘sole’ as in sneakers,” so, I added a E onto it and ultimately, it’s a marriage between the instrument that I use and the industry that I use it in. 

Before long, Edwards was invited to bring his program to some of the most established design schools: M.I.T., Parsons, the Kolding school in Denmark.

EDWARDS: I was just immersed into curriculum and education, all these things. And then I start to realize, school is all backwards. Like, it’s just backwards. 

DUBNER: What do you mean by that?

EDWARDS: So, I researched the beginning of education, and it was a place that you would go to learn a skilled trade and get a job. Simple, right? Then colleges came and then universities came, and it became a bigger mess. The part that was missing was the relationship between the school, the student, and the industry. School has become about money and not about what the kid is being taught and what happens when they graduate, and can they get a job. As a hiring manager for 25 years, I’m seeing 500, 600 portfolios every year of some kid that has a mortgage payment, because they graduated and there’s no way in hell they’re getting a job. The school, the student, and the industry — they were connected at the very, very beginning. And the more we went into this world of education, they’ve become further and further disconnected.

With the Pensole Academy, Edwards wanted to reconnect all the actors. He set to work designing a different business model. One big focus was cutting the cost. And not by a little bit.

EDWARDS: I knew I wanted it to be free. I just needed to figure out how to make it free.

DUBNER: So, was the answer to that basically have it funded by industry partners, or potential industry partners?

EDWARDS: Yes, because they’re the beneficiaries of the talent.

So far, Pensole has partnered with shoe and apparel firms including Nike, of course, but also Adidas and New Balance — as well as Jimmy Choo and Versace and brands like Herman Miller too.

EDWARDS: I went to the corporations, and I asked them, “What would you want?” And they said, “We would want the kids to be mature. We would want them to be responsible. And then we want them to have the skills and knowledge to be able to work as soon as we get them in.” The problem was these kids were coming in immature. They were coming in not understanding time management. They were coming in not understanding professionalism. They weren’t taught those things in school.

So Edwards taught professionalism.

EDWARDS: Simple things. Show up at 9:00 — 8:45 is on time. If you’re late, you do 50 pushups per minute. 

DUBNER: Get out of here! At school? 

EDWARDS: At school. And then it got to a point where the kids were like, “This is not fair.” So they were like, “Well, what about other options?” Actually a really good idea came from one of our employees, who was a former student. He was like, “You should make the students before the final presentation explain to the brand how often they were late and how many minutes they were late.” So now they have a choice — 

DUBNER: Push ups —

EDWARDS: — Or you admit your flaws to the person that’s trying to hire you. 

The vast majority of Pensole’s students so far are young men. If Edwards can grow Pensole like he wants to grow it, that might shrink the male-college-student deficit a little bit. But where was he going to build this academy that offered a free education and a job afterwards? Well, he’d recently learned about an abandoned college that used to train women for good jobs in a thriving industry: the Lewis College of Business in Detroit.

EDWARDS: A friend of mine, he lives in Detroit, and we were just having a conversation. He’s like, “Yeah, Detroit used to have an H.B.C.U.” I’m like, “What? Wait, stop, time out, what?”

It took some doing, and legal maneuvering, but with the help of Michigan politicians, D’Wayne Edwards is on the way to reopening Lewis College. It will be the first time a historically Black school has been reopened. Edwards thinks the H.B.C.U. designation will be particularly helpful in cultivating Black design talent.

EDWARDS: We’re still so far behind within the design industry, multiple industries. I did a study like three years ago — it is probably worse now, but three years ago, there were 96 design schools and colleges in the United States. Average enrollment is less than 10 percent of African Americans. Two percent graduate. And I would argue one percent of that two is not good enough to hire anyway. So, it’s really one percent. 

And that’s the number Edwards wants to raise. The new college is called the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. Classes have just started. For now, the program is still relatively short.

EDWARDS: So we started off at two weeks. Now we’re five weeks to 12 weeks and then we’re going to grow into two years. We partner with the brands. And when I say we partner with the brands — if you’re an Adidas and you want to do a program with us, we sit down and craft a curriculum together. Exactly what you want the kids to learn, how many students you want, exactly what professions you want them to learn in. We co-create everything with the brand, so everything we do is really customized for every person that we work with. 

Unlike a lot of college programs these days, the goal here is concrete.

EDWARDS: Each of those programs lead to some form of internship for the students, for a select number of students in that class. Whenever we have programs, at the end of it, there’s kids who are getting jobs at the end of those programs.

Edwards doesn’t see himself as any sort of college revolutionary. He sees himself as someone who realized that college has become too expensive, too inaccessible, and too divorced from its original goals — and then he found a way to do something about it.

EDWARDS: All we did was borrow from nursing schools, welding schools, electrical schools, and carpentry. We didn’t really invent anything. Our roots are in those jobs that built this country. So I do think education is headed for a shift. It is headed from the traditional way of doing things into a more entrepreneurial, more corporate structure that is more geared towards R.O.I.s and pure career development. I do think that that is where we’re headed. 

Do you think that’s where we’re headed? Do you like that direction? I’d love to hear what you thought about this episode and this whole series, “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.” Tell us what you liked, what you didn’t, what we missed, what you’d like to hear in the future. Also: how do you feel in general about these occasional series we produce? We usually do one or two each year — we’re working on another one right now about blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. Do you have any other ideas for series you’d like to hear? All your feedback is welcome, always, at radio@freakonomics.com. We’ll be back next week, until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This series was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie KanferMorgan Levey, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Sources

  • Zachary Bleemer, postdoctoral fellow at Opportunity Insights at Harvard University.
  • D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design.
  • Catharine Hill, former president of Vassar College; trustee at Yale University; and managing director at Ithaka S+R.
  • Pano Kanelos, president of the University of Austin.
  • Amalia Miller, professor of economics at the University of Virginia.
  • Donald Ruff, interim president and C.E.O. of the Eagle Academy Foundation.
  • Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University.
  • Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University.
  • Miguel Urquiola, professor of economics at Columbia University.

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