Lessons From The Recession In The Classroom

Jim McAndrew i i

Jim McAndrew, a professor of economics at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania, has seen enrollment in his classes skyrocket during the recession. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Jim McAndrew

Jim McAndrew, a professor of economics at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania, has seen enrollment in his classes skyrocket during the recession.

David Greene/NPR

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Randy Deeble i i

Randy Deeble, a 25-year-old student at Luzerne County Community College, worked as a welder before college. David Greene/NPR hide caption

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Randy Deeble

Randy Deeble, a 25-year-old student at Luzerne County Community College, worked as a welder before college.

David Greene/NPR
Jelani Cobb i i

Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history at Spelman College, says students have dropped out because they can't afford tuition. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Jelani Cobb

Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history at Spelman College, says students have dropped out because they can't afford tuition.

David Greene/NPR

As I got back on the road last week and headed out of New York, into the Pocono Mountains, I was thinking back to some of the voices I've heard so far. One was the voice of Jelani Cobb.

We met a few weeks ago at a restaurant down in Atlanta. Cobb teaches at Spelman, a historically black women's college. And he told me he's had students drop out because they can no longer afford tuition.

"It's one thing I guess if we hear all kinds of economic indicators on the news, and news stories," Cobb says. "But then you can actually, tangibly see the impact of the economy when you look at who's in your classroom and who's not."

Spelman isn't alone. Many private colleges and universities have seen their enrollment drop in this recession because students can't afford college right now.

But things are different at a public institution in northeastern Pennsylvania, where I arrived a few days ago.

"I have a very full load. My classes are packed these semesters," says Jim McAndrew, a professor of economics and management at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Pa. He says Luzerne is "affordably priced" and has seen a "huge increase" in enrollment.

Starting Over

It's not that applicants are suddenly fascinated with school. In fact, many of the new students have lost jobs and are turning to Luzerne County Community College to start over.

The school is actually forgiving a semester of tuition for people who are laid off. For McAndrew, it means he's teaching introductory economics courses at a time when many of his students have lost jobs themselves and are looking to him for answers.

"Every day I have to say, 'But wait a minute, here's what it says in the book, but here's what we're actually experiencing,' " he says. "An attempt to put it in some sort of context — it's a challenge."

Students As Guest Lecturers

McAndrew has realized that if he wants to keep his classes current, he's got some pretty good guest lecturers sitting at desks in front of him.

"It's obviously not going to be a very encouraging time to talk about unemployment this semester," he tells one of his classes. "But to try and put a positive spin on it, what can we do? What can you do in terms of your career plans so you're not part of that statistic, or limit the time you're part of that statistic?"

Randy Deeble, 25, is part of that statistic. McAndrew called on him during class.

"Right after high school, I didn't want necessarily to go to college," Deeble says. "I jumped into the work force. Probably about a year after high school, I landed a pretty decent job as a welder locally. I worked there just shy of four years. In January, I got laid off."

Deeble loved welding.

"If I had the chance to go back and they called me back, I'd definitely go," he says.

A Journey From Welder To Teacher

But he's not waiting by the phone. Deeble has decided he wants to be a teacher and a mentor to high school students.

"And hopefully tell them, get the message across to them, that you could do the choice to not go to college, but the better choice would be to get some kind of education after high school," he says.

Students like Deeble talked about their career plans in class for another 45 minutes or so. Then, McAndrew introduced a new class assignment: He wants his students to consider how a recession like this one can alter an entire job market and force people to set different career goals.

Beyond Textbooks

Walking around campus later, McAndrew says he won't let the recession consume his classes. He's still using the textbook to cover topics like the gross domestic product and the consumer price index. But he also feels like his students these days can learn from one another.

"There's a sense of reality if you hear someone sitting next to you make comments about their experience," he says. "You have a certain empathy for what they're talking about, but as a student you also have a chance to say, 'Gee, what can I learn from that? What can I do differently? How can I prepare myself in a different way?' "

This recession has brought McAndrew larger classes and a new chapter to teach.

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