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103: Ben Wildavsky – The Economics of Learning: Insights on Higher Education

In this episode I speak with Ben Wildavsky, a seasoned expert in education policy and a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia School of Education & Human Development. Ben shares insights from his new book, The Career Arts: Making the Most of College, Credentials, and Connections, which delves into making the most out of college through career credentials and connections.

We explore the value of college education in today’s economic landscape, discussing the balance between acquiring the broad skills and targeted skills that the job market demands. Ben’s perspective is rooted in extensive research and personal experiences, making our conversation not only informative but also deeply relatable for anyone thinking about the true value of higher education.

Ben also opens up about the concept of social capital and its critical role in career advancement, especially for first-generation college students. He provides practical advice on how students can build their networks and leverage these connections to enhance their career prospects.

This discussion is particularly close to my heart as we navigate the complexities of preparing students for a world that values both academic and practical skills. Ben’s thoughtful approach to these topics, combined with his genuine passion for education, makes this episode a must-listen for parents, students, and educators alike.

Join us as we unpack the tools necessary for turning educational investments into successful careers.

Key Takeaways

00:02:21 – Early years and lessons on success

00:07:12 – Discussion on high school to college transition statistics

00:19:11 – Three important skills students should acquire in college

00:34:04 – Advice to parents about college preparation for their children

Memorable Quotes

“I still believe there is a strong case for taking on a moderate amount of debt for college. You’re young, acquiring skills that the marketplace rewards. Borrow money, earn your degree, then get a job and start paying it back. You’ve invested in what economists call human capital.”

“Growing up, the notion of upward mobility and the American dream was apparent to me. My father, a child of immigrants, managed to go from modest beginnings to becoming a professor and owning a house in Oakland Hills. It taught me that with fortune and hard work, higher education can propel you forward.”

“It’s not just about having a degree or specific skills. If you don’t know anyone or can’t communicate your abilities, it’s hard to advance. Building networks, especially for those without inherited privileges, is crucial. It’s about who you know, who can vouch for you, and who can open doors to opportunities.”

Guest Resources

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ben.wildavsky/

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/wildavsky/

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/benwildavsky/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/Wildavsky

Book Mentioned:

The Career Arts – https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691239798/the-career-arts

Mindful Money Resources

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Episode Transcription

Ben Wildavsky [0:00 – 0:23]: I still am a traditionalist, where I believe there is actually a really good case for taking on a moderate amount of debt because you’re young and you don’t have a lot of the skills that the marketplace is rewarding. So borrow some money, maybe with government help, maybe from other sources, and then after you get your diploma, if everything goes well, your college degree, then you can get a job and you start paying it back because you’ve acquired what economists call human capital.

Ad [0:25 – 0:47]: Do you think money takes up more life space than it should? On this show, we discuss with and share stories from artists, authors, entrepreneurs, and advisors about how they mindfully minimize the time and energy spent thinking about money. Join your host, Jonathan DeYoe, and learn how to put money in its place and get more out of life.

Jonathan DeYoe [0:51 – 1:30]: Welcome back. On this episode of the Mindful Money podcast, I’m chatting with Ben Wildavsky. Ben hosts the Higher Ed Spotlight podcast, is a visiting scholar at University of Virginia School of education and human development. His decades of experience in journalism and education policy include leadership and research roles at Strada Education Network, the Brookings Institute, the Kaufman foundation, and US News and World Report. He’s the award winning author of the great Brain Race, the co editor of Reinventing Higher Education and Measuring Success. I wanted to talk to Ben about his new book, the career making the most of college career credentials and connections. Ben, welcome to the Mindful Money podcast.

Ben Wildavsky [1:30 – 1:32]: Oh, well, thank you so much for having me.

Jonathan DeYoe [1:33 – 1:36]: First, where do you call home and where are you connecting from?

Ben Wildavsky [1:37 – 2:12]: Well, I am in my home office in Chevy Chase, Maryland, about two blocks outside Washington, DC. My home office is the childhood bedroom of my youngest child, now 26 years old, living in Oakland, California. And that’s actually my real hometown. I was born in the Bay Area, grew up in Berkeley, went to high school in Oakland. But like a lot of people, I came to Washington a couple years out of college for a one year sort of intern type job, and one thing led to another and I ended up becoming a journalist and staying in DC and getting married. And I’ve been here now more than 30 years.

Jonathan DeYoe [2:13 – 2:19]: Yeah. So just take us back to your early years in Berkeley. What did you learn about success?

Ben Wildavsky [2:21 – 3:34]: Oh, gosh, that’s a great question. I mean, I was really there as a pretty small child. I actually moved away for a while before I came back. But, you know, you know, my dad was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley for 30 years. And so, you know, I suppose I don’t know if I was aware of this as a young child, but certainly the notion of upward mobility in the american dream was something that was very apparent to me because my father was the child of immigrants. You know, his father had gone to school, probably left school at age twelve or 13 in eastern Europe, had come to the United States with nothing. They were like, like many immigrant families, a very poor family. But this does not work for everybody. But in my dad’s case, you know, he was able to scrape into Brooklyn College and go for basically for almost nothing, go to college and ended up going to graduate school and getting a PhD and became a professor. So for him to get a house in the Oakland Hills, which is a beautiful part of Oakland, having come from pretty modest beginnings, that was, I think, one of the things that, nobody told me that exactly. But that’s one of the things that I learned, which is that if you were fortunate and you worked hard, you could get ahead through higher education.

Jonathan DeYoe [3:34 – 3:40]: I’m wondering about those early years, if money ever sort of arrives as a topic. Did you ever talk about it, or was it just taken for granted?

Ben Wildavsky [3:41 – 4:25]: Gosh, I mean, I suppose, you know, these things are all relative. You know, like a lot of people, we certainly, you know, we were in Berkeley, you know, and then, you know, my dad ended up living in the Oakland Hills, you know, so we were living what would be considered middle class or upper middle class neighborhoods. We did not think of ourselves as super wealthy. But of course, as you get older and you look around the world and you look around the United States, you realize there’s a huge variety of life circumstances. And oftentimes, you know, through no fault of their own, people end up in really tough situations. So I think that we did have a lot of privileges. I can’t say that was drilled into us because I think, like a lot of people, we just thought that our, we were living a fairly ordinary life.

Jonathan DeYoe [4:26 – 4:51]: I totally understand what you’re saying, and I kind of think that that’s the sense that we live an ordinary life, is gone. I think the flashlight has been shining pretty brightly on the differences now. So it’s difficult for kids, my kids, absolutely. No, they live a privileged life. Absolutely understand it. But that may not be the case for everyone. We’ll see. So before we dig into the book, can you kind of describe the arc of research and writing that leads you to writing career arts?

Ben Wildavsky [4:52 – 7:12]: Yeah, absolutely. In this case. It’s funny, I actually, my publisher, Princeton University Press, which is a wonderful publisher, they encouraged me to write a little essay, sort of telling, which was up on their website, sort of telling the story behind how I wrote the book. You know, it’s not like there’s a very simple narrative, but, you know, I was a journalist for many years, working at a variety, mostly at magazines. I was a newspaper reporter, actually, in San Francisco for a few years back in the early 1990s at the San Francisco Chronicle, I covered higher education. But all those years, you know, I had been really interested in all these issues, and I also did some k twelve. So I was interested in what was happening in the schools, what was happening in college. I was interested in all the issues that come up, whether it’s standardized testing or admissions, the whole debate around affirmative action. Those are all things I’ve written about and thought about. I had never thought a ton about careers and the connection between college and careers, but I ended up in my most recent sort of job at a large organization was at Strada Education Network, which has actually changed its name to Strada Education Foundation. I was a senior vice president, and that’s a place that really looks very carefully at the connection between post secondary education and the workforce. So that really got me thinking a lot about these kinds of issues. And so I realized that, you know, this idea that I’d had for a long time about writing a book about the value of college, that I should try and do that, but that I should take into account all the debate that’s taking place about is college a waste of time? Is it all a scam? Is it worthless? And there’s a ton of interest, as you know, and short term credentials, credentials that are more targeted toward careers, that are less expensive, that are perhaps easier to integrate into your life if you’re working, if you have kids, if you have responsibilities. So I realized there might be an opportunity to kind of combine some of my, the thinking about higher ed I’ve been doing for a long time, with some of this more recent thinking about careers. And then I ended up getting to, we can talk more about this, but I ended up getting super interested in this whole idea of what’s called social capital, which is really about the importance of networks, especially for people who don’t have a lot of privilege, who don’t have a lot of inherited privileges. And how do you use networks to take whatever kinds of degrees or other kinds of education and training you’ve received and turn that into a job that really helps you get ahead?

Jonathan DeYoe [7:12 – 7:34]: I love you’re sort of introducing the three or four topics that I actually want to talk about. But just before we go there, there’s a lot of statistics around high school to college graduation. Can you kind of paint the numbers of people that end up leaving high schools in a year, the percentage of them that go to college, the percentage of those that graduate, and what kind of situations they graduate into, debt levels, those kinds of things?

Ben Wildavsky [7:35 – 10:51]: I don’t have all of this completely committed to memory, but I’ll give you a sense of it, which is that, I mean, what I consider the good news is that, of course, we have many more Americans now graduate from high school. Let’s just start there then. Even 50 or 60 years ago, I actually wrote an article back in the summer, a few months before the book came out. I wrote sort of a preview article in the New York Times, and there was a statistic that I needed to look up. Actually, it’s not in the book, but it was in 1960. Only 41% of Americans had a high school diploma. So it was way lower than I would have thought. I was born in 1965, and that really reflects the fact that it was only in the 20th century, like 1920s, 1930s, that we began to have a real push, what’s called the high school movement. There was a real effort to get more and more Americans going to high school. So I’ll try to come back to your question, but basically we’ve gone from, in 1960, about 41% of the population to about 91% of the population now graduates from high school. So that’s a huge success. We really had this big push, and over time, that’s become a very common expectation. Right. Of those who graduate from high school about somewhere around. It’s gone down a little bit since COVID Around 65% or so go on to some kind of post secondary education. Now that could be two year community college before year college or university, but that’s a pretty healthy percentage. You know, we’ve had a big push to prove access to college, but unfortunately, we have a very high non completion rate. So the way the government measures this is they look at six year graduation rates because, you know, many people take longer than the standard four years. And I think that we’re now at about a 62% six year graduation rate overall, which is certainly decent, but it’s not as good as it could be. And there’s big differences by race and by class. So you look at lower income people who go to college or less likely to graduate. African Americans, Latino, all these minority populations who obviously have a history of disadvantage don’t graduate at such high rates. And then the other challenge, which you kind of alluded to is people graduate, and a lot of people graduate with debt. There is a whole discussion about, and you’re the financial advisor. But good debt versus bad debt was the old way it used to be put. I still am a traditionalist, where I believe there is actually a really good case for taking on a moderate amount of debt because you’re young and you don’t have a lot of the skills that the marketplace is rewarding. So you borrow some money, maybe with government help, maybe from other sources, and then after you get your diploma, if everything goes well, your college degree, then you can get a job and you start paying it back because you’ve acquired what economists call human capital. Right? You’ve acquired all these strengths and abilities and skills. But what happens is if you end up being one of the many people who don’t make it through college, you end up with what they say, dead and no degree, which is kind of the worst of both worlds because you owe money, but you didn’t get the degree that’s going to help you get a better job and pay it back. So part of the challenge we’re currently facing, I think, is there’s a lot of lack of, there’s a lot of skepticism about whether college is worthwhile, and that’s partly not because of people who actually finished college, but it’s all the people who tried, didn’t make it through and ended up saddled with student debt.

Jonathan DeYoe [10:51 – 11:15]: So that’s, I think you kind of answered this, but I want to just be very clear. The big question, is the price of college worth it? There’s people that, like you said, that don’t complete, and it’s not really worth it for them. But there’s also people that complete and end up being underemployed or can’t find work, difficult job market, etcetera. So is college a good idea for everyone, or is it like a small subset or a smaller subset?

Ben Wildavsky [11:16 – 14:40]: Well, I would divide that into a few questions. So your first overall question is college worthwhile? And I would say, absolutely. And I’m very much a believer. I think that it’s not just that it’s not like it’s a personal belief system. It’s that there’s a very comprehensive base of economic evidence, including somebody like Claudia Goldin, the Harvard professor of economics, who just won the Nobel Prize. She and her co author, Larry Katz, who’s actually a Berkeley graduate, they wrote a wonderful book called the race between education and technology, which was all about how the 20th century was a century in which the job market, increasingly, by the end of the century and going into the new century increasingly was rewarding high levels of education with higher salaries. And what’s remarkable is that happened even during this period when way more people started going to college. So, like in the 1990s and two thousands, you might say, oh, more people going to college, that’s going to dilute the value of degrees. But it was the opposite. More people were going by what’s called the college wage premium, which is the amount that people with college degrees are on over and above the amount of people who just went to high school. That was increasing. So there’s a lot of really strong evidence there’s now something like a 70 or 75% college wage premium on average. Now it is an average. So, of course, people who are more skeptical will tell you, well, that’s not true for everyone. That’s true of any average figure. But by and large, the job market has been rewarding more education and more education after high school. And that’s very consistent. It’s actually not just a uS phenomenon. It’s a pretty international phenomena. That’s why there’s been this big push to get more people to go to college. So to get to, I guess the second part of your question, is it valuable for everybody? No, I mean, it depends, of course, if you go and you don’t complete, that’s a big risk factor. So in my book, the career arts, I have a list of the career arts in the final chapter. And one of the things I say is, I say you should go to college. It’s a good idea. But you do want to complete college. That’s part of what makes it valuable. And that’s a big area where individuals obviously need to try to make it work. But I think there’s a lot colleges could do to support people better. And you could talk about college finance as part of the package. But I think that there are people who need more support to get through college and who can do much better with those supports in place. There are people who, just for college isn’t the right thing for them. There might be 17 or 18. Maybe they’re not super into academics. Maybe they have other priorities. Maybe they want to try the military. Maybe they want to try just working for a while. And I think that’s fine if you don’t take the position. I think you want to say maybe you don’t want college right now, but you may want to think about other ways to develop what you are going to need, which is, I think you need broad skills. I mean, that’s everything from what they call, you know, critical thinking, communication, teamwork. And then those are important. You need targeted skills, and those are the skills you actually need to get a job immediately. And that could be the classic example. Of course, people talk about coding and computer languages, but it could also be accounting skills. It could also be nursing skills. It could also be teaching skills. There’s a lot of things that are very much in demand immediately, and then we can talk about this more. But the whole notion of it’s not just that you need a piece of paper or you need this little skill, and then you’re all set. You have to figure out how to turn that into a job offer and then how to prove yourself in the job market.

Jonathan DeYoe [14:40 – 14:47]: So you talk a lot about this in the book, and there’s a section like devoted this. So how does a student find the right kind of college and program for them?

Ben Wildavsky [14:48 – 16:23]: It’s a big, messy, complicated system. And I think that it’s easier for some than for other. In one of my past lives, I was the editor of the US News and World Report College and graduate school guides. And so these are guides, of course, that try to look at all the colleges around the country and they try to quantify and create these rankings, you know, showing by various measures which colleges are most effective and with lots of controversy about whether they even use the right measures. There’s lots of alternative competing college guides like the Washington Monthly and many, many others. The Wall Street Journal now does this, you know, Forbes. I think the basic idea is there are lots of resources you can consult. There are, of course, high school counselors. They are often overburdened. There’s not a great ratio of students to counselors, but like so many things. And one of the challenges is just like the opportunity to attend really good schools and to get really good academic preparation is unevenly distributed. The opportunity to get really good advice is not evenly distributed. So one of my hopes, frankly, is with the book is, you know, I would really like to reach guidance counselors, teachers and parents because I think a lot of students and a lot of their parents don’t always have access to great advice. So it’s a real challenge to help people. These are complicated choices. And yeah, if you definitely know you want to go to the local community college or the local four year state college, fine. Like you can find out, I think, fairly easily what it’s going to take to get there, but it’s often not that straightforward. And maybe you want to consider other options. You really need some guidance.

Jonathan DeYoe [16:24 – 16:52]: So there’s a couple sort of different places in the book. Where you talk about, and I love this, actually. It gives me hope for the humanities. There’s a couple different places you talk about STEM, science, tech, engineering, math, and how that degree leads to an instantly higher income upon graduation, but that by mid career that advantage dissipates. And I would love to hear you explain that and then talk about the, and you sort of introduced it, the three things college students should be acquiring in college that sort of balances that out.

Ben Wildavsky [16:52 – 19:05]: Absolutely. Well, so I’ll start with the STEM specifically. And, you know, I should be clear. I mean, I’m not against stem. I think STEM is great. I have, one of, my kids was a physics major, and it’s held me in good stead, not even in a physics field. So we can, we can come back to that because that’s really your second question about the broad, the things that you need. But look, I actually mentioned in the book, one of the, I interviewed a lot of different experts, economists and other people for the book. One of the people I spoke to was a guy named David Deming, who is an economist. He’s at Harvard. He’s right now the academic dean of the Kennedy School of government, very distinguished young economist. And he actually did an article in the New York Times about, I want to say it was about five years ago or so, in which he had done some research about this exact phenomena, which is, yes, if you were looking at the immediate starting salaries out of college or even within the first five or ten years, you know, people with the STEM majors, the science and technology and engineering, tend to do better. But over time, by middle age, that advantage really gets eroded. It’s not like totally gone, I think, but it’s just much less, it’s much less pronounced. And that’s partly because we know this from some other research that I discuss in the book. By the time you’re maybe ten years into your first job, then maybe you’re getting the opportunity to be a manager. Maybe you’re getting the opportunity to lead teams. Maybe you’re just working in different situations where you have to navigate change. You have to work with different personalities, as we all know, who spent some time in the workforce. You might be really good at your specific task. It’s like when you journalism, if you’re a good reporter, they might ask you to become an editor. It turns out being an editor is a totally different set of skills. I mean, it’s not just the actual editing the words on paper. It’s working with people and trying to get their best work out of them. And trying to figure out how to be a good coach and how to deal with it. Obviously, everybody ends up having personal challenges, and that’s a very different sort of skill set. So long story short, David Deming’s research really found that by middle age, the non stem, the liberal arts, the humanities majors had often caught up or closed. So that’s the first part of the question. Now I’m throwing out a lot of different things. Do you want me to keep on going on that, or do you want me to go to your other question about the big qualities that people get out of education?

Jonathan DeYoe [19:05 – 19:10]: Let’s go to the big qualities. What should students be seeking when they’re going to college? You name three broad categories.

Ben Wildavsky [19:11 – 20:45]: Yeah, that’s right. And what I really came up with and what is sort of the theme of the book is really that there are three big things that are important. And the first one is you could call it broad skills or even just broad education, but the idea that all the things that we often associate with a college education, but they might be obtainable in other ways, too, but things like being able to take in a lot of information, to synthesize a lot of information and to sort of summarize what it is, to analyze it, to be able to think carefully about the pros and cons, let’s say, of a certain policy or of maybe a certain historical incident, and to know what different people said about it and to be able to understand it, to be able to communicate it to other people, to be able to give a fairly, fairly accurate and thoughtful account of it. That’s one example of what people would call critical thinking skills or analytical thinking skills, or just different terms that are used. Sometimes people even use term like navigation skills. And that has to do with the idea that these are things that you can use in different circumstances, but you need, if you’re going to change jobs, we’re all going to live longer. There’s a great book by a former colleague, Michelle Weiss, called long life learning about how as people live longer, they’re going to have more job transitions. All the skills that you need to navigate and to transition, to communicate with other people, to take in new data, those are all under the heading of broad skills. I would say broad education, broad skills.

Jonathan DeYoe [20:46 – 21:21]: It’s interesting. I don’t want to get the other two, but trigger’s not that word. But it’s bringing up this thing for me because I have younger kids, high school aged kids, and so those kind of fit underneath executive functioning, like the thing that we want them to learn how to do is executive function. And I think that some of the, and this is not for today’s conversation, but just for thinking some of the over parenting we see removes children’s ability to develop executive functioning. So now they’re developing it in college and post college work, which was never something that college was supposed to do, but now it’s something a college has to do because they’re not getting in the home, which is, I don’t know, that’s something for further thought and research.

Ben Wildavsky [21:22 – 25:42]: So then that’s actually no. And I can’t resist saying, you know, if you look at my first chapter, I talk about non cognitive skills, and that’s actually a really important part of what you’re describing, which is it’s sort of like it’s not just pure book learning that’s important, I think, but it is learning how to deal with certain situations. It’s one of the reasons why so many parents, myself included, really sort of struggle with how do you give your kids enough running room to. Maybe they’ll make some mistakes, but that might be good for them as a learning experience as opposed to hovering so much that they never get a chance to develop those things until they leave home. Right. So I totally agree with your general point. So let’s just say those all fit under the bucket of broad skills, and then the next one is the targeted skills. And this is where, and frankly, I think there are some college critics who I think sort of are not very, I don’t think they’re very accurate about what college really is because actually, I think college actually includes lots of targeted skills. Because if you look at what the most popular majors are, we can all, I mean, I was personally a comparative literature major, so you could make fun of the humanities and the liberal arts and these useless literary analyses. But the fact is, most people go to college. Business is by far different flavors of business. You know, accounting, marketing, et cetera, are probably the most popular undergraduate majors, but also things like teaching is extremely popular. You know, a lot of the old normal schools from the, like, late 19th century, early 20th century became state universities. There’s also, I’m thinking, so nursing. Oh, computer science, of course, engineering, accounting. You know, there are just a lot of different, very practical fields. But the reason I say targeted is if you have the ability to write a line of code or help somebody market a product or teach a student how to read or do maths, all of those core skills, there’s a very heavy demand for those in the labor market. People, they want to hire people who can do those things pretty much on day one. So those are the targeted skills that really matter. And, of course, there’s all kinds of others that I’m not mentioning, but those are the kinds of things that people think of when they think about. We need people with practical skills. And I think the big misconception is that if you go to college, you know, you’re somehow a philosopher or something, you’re in the ivory tower, and then it’s only if you’re going to go out and be like a welder or something. So I talk about this as like the philosopher versus the welder and this whole idea that it’s like this big fork in the road and it’s like an either or choice between one path or the other. Whereas, you know, so many of us have seen it’s really both in, you need those broad skills and you need the targeted skills. But that really sort of sets up the third point, which is those are, I think those are necessary whether you get them in college or you may try and find a way to get them in some other ways, but they’re not sufficient. And that’s because you can have the degree, you could have the credential or the piece of paper, or you, maybe you’re just a really good coder. But if you don’t know anybody and you are not able to tell a good story about yourself and what you offer to people and what your skills are, and you’ve maybe never had a hard time job or a summer job or an internship, and so there’s nobody who knows you, and you can vouch for you and say, oh, yeah, I’ve seen him work and he shows up on time and he does things well, and he has a high standard of quality control. I put all of those in the, under the headline of social capital, which is an old sort of sociology term. And you could also just talk about building networks. But that’s something where when people look at the source of inequality, there are many in our society, right? But there’s the core access to good educational opportunities, but there’s also the ability to have the kinds of networks where you learn about an opportunity to have a summer internship or a summer job to show what you can do to meet people who might be able to help you in the future. And for some people, you know, they go to college and it’s like a full package. They get the broad skills, they get the targeted skills, and they build social capital and they’re all set. But many people, it’s much more of an effort. And so I think there are people who, particularly focusing on first generation college students, students from lower income backgrounds without a lot of inherited advantages. They’re trying to figure out ways to help those students take what they’ve learned and really be able to use it in a very practical sense in the job market.

Jonathan DeYoe [25:43 – 26:13]: So mindful money. Actually partners with a group called Berkeley Scholars. And I don’t know if you remember the Berkeley Community Fund from 25 years ago that’s sort of merged or morphed into this thing called Berkeley Scholars, but it provides first and family college scholarships with sort of an overlay of social service support networks and kind of stuff. So. And has great success in people graduating and getting a job from first and first and families. So we host a scholarship there, which is actually fantastic and love doing that.

Ben Wildavsky [26:14 – 26:14]: Great.

Jonathan DeYoe [26:14 – 26:55]: It’s the social capital thing. My son is a freshman at UCLA. He’s in the music and industry program. Last week, he had his first informational interview that was connected. It was a connection with, from my wife to one of her high school college boyfriends who happens to work in the industry. Right. So it’s like we made a connection. He sat down, he had an informational interview. We hear back from Scott is a guy’s name, and he says, oh, yeah, I did great. But that’s because we know people and we understand the importance of the network. So if you’re first in family, you don’t have a Berkeley scholars. How do you engage this? Is it enough to talk to your professors, or do you need to? What else can a student do?

Ben Wildavsky [26:55 – 32:13]: That’s tough. Yeah, I mean, I love that anecdote, and that’s, I mean, that is exactly how it works for many people who are. And look, it’s not obviously the right, if you’re somebody’s parent, you want to give your child an opportunity, great. You know, I think that’s something that people do. The real it is really challenging. There isn’t a single answer, but I’ll give you a few different possibilities. So one is actually another group that was started in the Bay Area, although it now has a big presence on the east coast as well. There’s a place called co op careers, which I also write about it in the book. And this chapter on social capital. There’s a guy named Kalani lifer who started this. They now work with a lot of recent college graduates, first generation college graduates in the Bay Area, but also in New York City, for example, where I interviewed some people. And, you know, he himself, his father was on the faculty at Stanford, so he was a faculty kid. And he, I think he went to Stanford. So he describes that experiences. I think the quote in the book is he was marinating in social capital. It was just like the whole experience of being in this residential elite, great college, right? But what he tries to do is to create these cohorts of people who may have come from first generation background who’ve ended up getting a good first job and are doing well, but he has them work as coaches. So he has what’s called a near peer model where the idea is that for some first generation students, it may be more comfortable to be in a cohort of people who really can relate to your experience in a very direct way, but also to get advice from somebody who has some of that, has overcome some of those challenges and can sort of give you ideas. And you mentioned informational interviews. There’s another organization called Braven, based in Chicago, but again, it now has a pretty big national presence in multiple places. They have partnerships with colleges. So I went to Newark, New Jersey, when I was researching the book, and I remember talking to a number of students there who were at Rutgers University, at the Newark campus. It’s one of their kind of major campuses. It’s not the headquarters, but it’s another large campus. And I talked to a student. His parents were immigrants from Macedonia. His father worked as a security guard at night. His mother worked in a laboratory, like at some biotech company at night. So, you know, he’d been in the country maybe ten years. He probably came when he was ten or eleven or twelve. For him, like, learning from Braven about the whole idea of an informational interview was a total revelation. And, like, what he said to me is, like, so it’s like the fact that it was not just like, who your family was or who they knew that you could get some opportunity from. You could get in touch with somebody, maybe who went to the same college you did, and you could say, I’m at Rutgers Newark, and I’m interested in careers, in whatever the field is. Would you have 30 minutes to talk to me about the field? Just for information, not asking for a job. And so in other words, the things that you and your family were able to do for your son are things that other people can do, but they need coaching, they need preparation. There happen to be some nonprofits. I’ve mentioned co op careers. I’ve mentioned Braven. There’s actually for people who may not have gone to college in the Bay Area. There’s a place called climb higher, which does a really nice job taking people who may feel a little bit stuck in certain jobs, like they might have had a barista job or something, but they feel like they want something that’s more of a career. And they do some tutoring in really core skills, like maybe Salesforce skills, but they also do a lot of work on building networks and building social capital. So I don’t want to go on too long about this, but there is, that’s one whole model which is working with the nonprofits. But I will say the other thing, which is for people who do go to college, whether it’s, you know, a very selective college at a very elite place or a community college or a local, pretty open access school, there are a lot of people who I think can find help from professors, can sometimes get help from career services. There’s a lot of soul searching going on in career services about how to make what they do more effective. And some of that involves getting people into more internships, more actual exposure to the workforce. And some of these even places, like down in San Diego, there’s a place called Point Loma Nazarene where they kind of put career services in terms of how the university is structured. They put it underneath the provost, which is like the academic leader of the institution. And so one of the things they try to do is they have a lot of first generation students, first generation families, and they may be a little bit dubious about, well, so what exactly are these liberal arts majors going to do in terms of getting my child a job? Very reasonable question, right? Because that’s why people go to college, by and large, that they’ve created sort of major maps where they will say, people who major in certain of our popular majors do get jobs. And here are some of the jobs. And, like, San Diego has a big biotech industry. So you might major in a core science like biology, but you might get a job, and not necessarily as a researcher, but you might get a job in marketing or in sales or one of the many other areas that the biotech industry needs. But essentially, in what this is, maybe the end of this, part of the answer is that you have to just try to be transparent with students, which is that, yes, it’s nice if you have connections in your family, but if you don’t, there are ways to build that. And that has to do with trying to find the people who can help you. Going to the seminars, learning what, say, an informational interview is trying to get an internship where you will meet people. And if you do a good job, they will remember you, and they will help you get ahead later. So there’s just a whole bunch of things that you try to put together and see what you can do.

Jonathan DeYoe [32:13 – 32:47]: There’s something that I don’t think that gets enough airtime, and that’s generally people want to help, and there’s people that are really, really super busy, and I don’t think students today should be afraid of, like, just reaching out. I get calls. I ran a business for 25 years. I sold that business, like, two years ago. I get calls all the time from people just out in the industry saying, hey, can you talk to me about XYZ? And I’m like, absolutely. Like, I’d love to talk to you about XYZ. Like, I’d love to help you out get started. Right. And I think there’s a lot of people like that, so don’t be afraid just picking up the phone and calling somebody, you know, drop an email. We’re very public, so.

Ben Wildavsky [32:47 – 33:39]: Absolutely. No, I totally agree. And I think that’s part of it is there is almost like a. It’s funny. I talked to a woman. She’s now actually the acting president of Hunter College in New York City, part of the city University of New York system, which has been sort of a classic engine of upward mobility for a lot of immigrant families. But she said she was the dean for a long time of one of their honors college divisions. And she said the students that she would talk to, first generation students, they kind of felt like networking felt a little bit like it was cheating, like there was something kind of like a little bit less than straightforward. Like, you should just prove yourself by doing well on the test or whatever. And she would have to just sort of say no. I mean, this is how you meet people and how you learn about opportunities. So there really is almost like a information and a cultural barrier to overcome, to tell people it’s fine to reach out to somebody and they might say no, but it’s worth a try. And you will find people often do want to be helpful.

Jonathan DeYoe [33:40 – 34:04]: Yeah, you got to make ten calls to get two informational interviews, but so what? Then make 50 calls and get ten interviews. Right. That’s excellent. There’s a lot of noise out there about the value of college. We’ve talked a little bit out here. If you were, I don’t know, on a stage talking to a group of junior year high school parents, what is one thing you would tell them to focus on to help them get their kids to have a. Get the most out of their college investment.

Ben Wildavsky [34:04 – 34:31]: You know, it’s so funny, really. I feel like it depends so much on which high school, which parents, because there are some communities, like where I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, you know, it’s affluent suburb, big DC. There is almost like a college mania. People are so focused, I think maybe excessively so, on very elite schools. Tomorrow I’m going to give a talk at New Trier High school, just north of Chicago, where again, it’s a very.

Jonathan DeYoe [34:31 – 34:34]: Strong, that’s my wife’s high school.

Ben Wildavsky [34:35 – 37:03]: Terrific. Terrific. Well, I’m looking forward to being there. But, you know, they have a very ambitious student and parent body, I think. So I tend to feel like the message there is maybe a little bit different, which is partly just like, hey, try to focus on then. Yeah, of course it’s understandable. People care about the elite schools and so on. But like, that is not the only part of being a successful person academically or professionally or like, and I don’t think it’s not like it’s the mirror image. If you’re talking to people, you know, if you’re talking to parents and students at a low income high school, you don’t want to tell them they should just totally aim for the Ivy League or bus, you know, but it’s more, I think that all parents, and then students, too, they kind of need to hear that there is a lot that you can do to control what your own sort of future is all about. And I don’t want to be a Pollyanna because obviously people have different challenges to overcome, but I do. I’m a big believer in the core educational values. I mean, obviously, if you are a strong leader, if you have strong analytical skills, whether or not you do that at your local state school or community college or whether you go to a very selective college, those are skills that you’re going to take with you wherever you go. And so when I talk about broad skills, you kind of need to think about investing in yourself, and that means investing in your own human capital. So you want to have those broad navigation skills that you can take with you wherever you go that are going to be helpful throughout your life. But yeah, you want to kind of try out different interests. I don’t think that you have to go to college when you’re 17 or 18 and know that you want to be an accountant or know that you want to be a computer programmer. I think it’s fine to experiment. I think that’s sort of a natural part of life. But then I do think all these factors I’ve talked about. I think you also need to be aware, and some of these programs I’ve talked about, like this guy who founded co op careers, he tells people, when you were in a college class or you’re in a club or you’re on a team, and you look around like all these people that you are hanging out with or getting drinks with or whatever, those are your network. Those are people that you are going to, in some cases, you may know them for a long time. Those are going to be important to you. So it doesn’t mean you approach everybody in life with a really calculating kind of cost benefit calculus, but it means that you sort of think about yourself as a person who is developing a set of skills and a set of connections. And those are the things that almost regardless of the specifics, regardless of whatever the name brand is of your college, those are the things that you as an individual are going to take with you and which, if you play it well, can hold you in good stead for a long time.

Jonathan DeYoe [37:04 – 37:43]: Yeah, I think we get, there’s a tendency to make it very transactional once we start talking about it this way. And I think that there is a natural network. You go out and play soccer, so you have a whole bunch of people that play soccer with you. And so there’s going to be people there that you can go to coffee afterwards and ask them direct questions, and they’re going to be fine with that. It’s a nice, safe place to do it, and they care about you because you have something in common. So just bring the networking down a notch. It’s not that big a deal. Make a phone call. People want to help. Just a couple more personal questions. And these may, I don’t know if you listen to an episode, but I always like to throw a couple things here at the end. Is there anything that people don’t know about you that you really want them to know about you?

Ben Wildavsky [37:46 – 38:37]: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, I’m trying to think. Well, I mean, that question kind of invites. I feel like it’s self indulgent answers. But for some reason I was thinking about this because this podcast I host and I discovered there’s a new producer I’m going to be working with. I haven’t met her person yet, but I discovered she has a background in stand up comedy. And I found myself thinking, first of all, I thought was pretty cool, and I thought that would be good. And then I thought, well, I should really tell her. I may seem like I’m just a really? Policy wonk. But actually, I used to do a lot of theater when I was in high school and a little bit in college, and I did a little bit of improv. And I’ve actually written things that were sort of considered funny. And so it’s sort of like you always kind of want to know that you’re not. At least I hope I’m not a totally typecast as a kind of, you know, nerdy, you know, education writer that I have. Like Whitman said, I contain multitudes.

Jonathan DeYoe [38:37 – 38:39]: I’m not just an academic.

Ben Wildavsky [38:40 – 38:41]: I love it.

Jonathan DeYoe [38:41 – 38:45]: Can you tell me what book is on the nightstand right now? What are you reading at the moment?

Ben Wildavsky [38:45 – 39:36]: Oh, gosh. Yeah. I mean, well, this is going to be, this is going to sound fancier than, because a lot of times it could easily be, you know, I think I read a book called, actually, this is sort of a classic. I read a book called the Hustler recently, which my wife’s recommendation, which is, I think, from the 1950s, and it was turned into a movie. It’s about a pool shark. But I finished that because it’s a pretty short, quick read. And I’m reading this huge book about the history of Venice. And like I said, that’s not necessarily my typical read. But we are going to Italy in May, and I thought, you know, for once, I should learn something about where I’m going. And so I’m, like, reading about, like, all these things that I knew nothing about, the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire and how Venice was kind of like a gateway in between these two empires because it was this huge naval power. So it’s, you know, I can’t say I, it’s not like a page turner. I’m getting through a few pages every night, but I’m kind of getting a kick out of it.

Jonathan DeYoe [39:36 – 39:44]: That’s great. Finally tell people how they can connect with you. Are you on social media at all? Is it email? Where do they find the book? Cetera?

Ben Wildavsky [39:44 – 40:36]: Oh, well, thanks for asking. Yes, I’m, first of all, the book is Princeton University Press. It’s the career arts. It has a website which has actually links to, of course, you can purchase the book there, or you can purchase it, you know, the usual online places, but also it has a lot of links to video. I did an event at Brookings. I did an event at Harvard. I did an event at UCLA. So there’s a lot of ways you can just get, like a little or even this is, I don’t know if that’s on the same website, but I did this article for the New York Times, and they had me do a TikTok video. So I have a one and a half minute video sort of summing up some of my main points. And then to reach me, it’s just my first name and my last name at gmail. So it’s ben.wildavsky@gmail.com and I am on probably too much on social media. My wife would say. These days, you know, who knows what’s happening with Twitter or X? I sort of dip in and out of that, but I’m very reliably on LinkedIn and that’s a good place to find me.

Jonathan DeYoe [40:36 – 40:42]: Ben, thanks very much for the conversation, the answers. We’re going to make sure all that’s in the show notes. I really appreciate your time.

Ben Wildavsky [40:42 – 40:44]: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

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