The whistle-stop education



Most American college students haven’t completed a cross-country road trip, let alone a transcontinental train trek. Such journeys give us not only a greater appreciation for the vast nation we tend to fly over, but also the time to reflect on what we see and experience away from the frenzy of daily life.

This month, two dozen young entrepreneurs did just that, crossing the United States on a train for 10 days, to discover the country and themselves. Aboard the Millennial Trains Project, each of the twenty-somethings (average age 25) devised a project to benefit others. At stops in Salt Lake City, Omaha, and Chicago, among other places, where they met with local entrepreneurs and leaders.

By night they traveled on historic passenger cars connected to Amtrak trains, hearing from guest lecturers on entrepreneurship, the media, and leadership, in a curriculum designed in part by City Year, a nonprofit group that works to help low-income students graduate from high school. I joined the Chicago-to-Pittsburgh leg to lead a discussion about the future of higher education, following Michael Oreskes, an author and senior managing editor of the Associated Press, who talked about the evolving role of media in democracy.

Our discussion lasted long past midnight as the train rumbled through the fields of Indiana. Several participants remarked that the nighttime “salons” over the weeklong journey reminded them of what they missed most about undergraduate life: an intellectual discussion among students with diverse disciplinary expertise, connecting classroom learning to real-world problems.

The individual projects, on which the participants updated their fellow travelers each night, included turning excerpts of American poems into street art on the journey and documenting the importance of train travel.

Four of the projects had direct links to higher ed: Meghan Mason, who works at Middlebury College, set out to learn about how to expand access to college; Sean Kolodziej, a junior at North Dakota State University, wanted to learn what millennials really knew about their personal finances; Gregory Wilson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, had an idea for a “pop-up” university that would help colleges teach skills that students will need to succeed in the workplace; and Web Barr, a digital producer at National Geographic, was rethinking the college-admissions process.

The Millennial Trains Project is a great example of what experiential, outside-the-classroom learning could accomplish. “You’ve probably learned more on these 10 days via the train than 10 days in college,” Keith Bellows, editor in chief of National Geographic Travel, told the participants on the final night of the journey, on the way to Washington from Pittsburgh.

Many of the encounters these millennials had on their trip—involving community-based learning and common intellectual experiences, among others—are straight from the playbook of high-impact learning practices that have been shown to improve learning, retention, and graduation rates in college.

But those learning practices seem to start and stop within the confines of earning a degree. We know that the transitions from high school to college and from college to the work force present obstacles that lead young people to drop out of college or struggle to start a career.

Indeed, getting traction into a career is more difficult than ever before, and the transition period to higher earnings is longer. Anthony Carnevale, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, who is studying this phenomenon, told me that since the early 1980s, a new phase has emerged in the life cycle of Americans: People in their 20s are seeing their careers and their earnings progression pushed to later in life. He expects to release his research this fall.

As colleges increasingly compete in an ecosystem of new educational providers and are forced to prove their value at a time of rising tuition prices and falling family incomes, colleges can’t just welcome students for orientation, wish them well at commencement, and say their work is done. In an era of virtual education, the real benefits of traditional, residential education should extend beyond the time it takes to amass 120 credits.

This generation needs help on both the front end and back ends of college—and higher education is well positioned to take the lead in providing that assistance. Dan Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, calls this period in a young adult’s life a college’s 10-year “zone of impact,” which includes the year before college, the four years of undergraduate studies, and five years after college.

For example, the force behind the Millennial Trains Project, Patrick Dowd, was inspired by a similar journey he took as a Fulbright Scholar in India.

There is no reason that colleges can’t take the lead with experiential learning ventures to help their incoming students or their graduates manage difficult transitions in life. As our life expectancy increases, the idea of college as a place we experience at just one time in our lives, usually early on, seems old-fashioned.