Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Higher Education Stories You Should Be Covering

Game Day at the University of Iowa. Focusing on how athletic programs influence a university's operations is a smart story for reporters, says Inside Higher Ed's editor Scott Jaschik. (Flickr/Phil Roeder)

Editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed Scott Jaschik’s panel “Top 10 Higher Ed Stories You Should Be Covering This Year” has attracted such a crowd every year that this year he began  his presentation  at EWA’s recent National Seminar in Chicago by noting that he’d been asked in the halls whether he’d be charting new territory. Although some stories remain fixtures on his must-cover list, there are new trends that education reporters should track, he told the roughly 80 attendees.

Following an introduction by Felice Nudelman, chancellor of Antioch University, Jaschik began by telling the audience of journalists, “I really appreciate all of the work that you do,” noting that the insights they provide on what’s happening on the campuses they cover locally often helps shape and inform Inside Higher Ed’s national coverage.

His introductory remarks also addressed one trend which didn’t make the top 10 list — the “elephant in the room,” which also happens to be the “most talked about and trashed piece of journalism in the last year” — the “notorious” Rolling Stone article about an accusation of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, which the magazine had to retract following the revelation that it had been misreported. Jaschik advised attendees to be extra cautious when reporting such stories, noting that female victims are increasingly not only speaking out about sexual assault, but also are likelier to do so with their names.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

1. State abandonment of community colleges

“It’s not getting the play it deserves,” Jaschik said. “It’s huge.” Arizona recently removed funding for two of its community colleges from its budget, he added. “Collectively they educate more than 250,000 students, most of them first-generation students. This is something that has fallen apart — nowhere more than Arizona.” Despite the large number of students affected by defunded community colleges, the story often escapes reporters’ attention, according to Jaschik. “The (newspaper) publisher’s daughter is not at a community college. The publisher is aware when tuition goes up at the flagship,” Jaschik said.

2. Colleges in financial trouble

Jaschik is often approached by people who work in higher education who wonder which college is going to go under next. “Who is on death watch?” they want to know. He isn’t privy to any crystal balls that elude other reporters, but post-Sweet Briar College’s announcement that it will shutter operations, Jaschik recommended that reporters keep an eye on the shrinking number of liberal arts colleges and on historically black colleges, which are in “deep, deep fights with their (state legislatures)”

3. Affirmative action makes colleges creative

If the Supreme Court rules that colleges and universities cannot take race and ethnicity into account in their student admissions decisions, Jaschik predicts that there will be a trend toward more schools going test-optional, as Maryland’s Goucher College has done. “I would urge you to stop doing stories on hysterical suburban students who applied to dozens of colleges and didn’t get in,” he said. Instead, the focus should be on the ways that admissions processes are changing. At Goucher, for example, applicants can submit videos of themselves in lieu of sending transcripts. “The real story on Goucher will be four years from now when we write about whether the video admits graduated at the same rates and achieved the same success,” Jaschik said. “The jury is still out.”

4. Who runs universities with big sports programs?

When law deans assume positions at the helm of big-time athletic programs, they may have the tools to think creatively about how to weather legal minefields, but they don’t tend to bring an understanding of college athletics to the job. And when those who aren’t strong managers are named as college and university presidents, that can further empower certain athletic directors. “When you name a distinguished scholar [president] … are you making the athletic director more powerful?” Jaschik said. “What this all means, I don’t know.”

5. U.S. Presidential campaign

With a presidential campaign that will be at least 19-months in scope underway, “a few glimmers” of higher education issues have already surfaced. At a community college in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked about financial aid, and she answered another question as well, Jaschik noted. She went on to criticize for-profit schools, “which was interesting, because it wasn’t clear she would have that point of view,” he said. “Issues in higher education are big political issues … Debt has become a really big political issue and a popular issue to talk about.” But, he cautioned, reporters should use appropriate caution and skepticism when covering the intersection of politics and higher ed.

6. Concealed Weapons on Campus

“This issue has in some sense been around for a while,” Jaschik said. But there are also new wrinkles developing. Eight states currently have campus carry laws — either by court or legislative order — and 11 states are seriously considering some version of the law, some of them with “good chance” of passage. “This appears to be the big year for campus carry,” he said. Although he said it’s very hard to find a college or university president who supports campus carry laws, Jaschik noted that “These measures are passing.” He recommended that reporters not only focus on the ideological angle, but also the cost of such policies and the evidence about the impact of campus carry laws. “Don’t just quote one side and then the other,” he advised.

7. Anti-Semitism 

“If you cover higher ed, as I do, especially if people find out that you’re Jewish, as I am, you get a lot of pitches to write about anti-Semitism on college campuses,” Jaschik said. He noted that often those pitches center on charges that people or groups that are critical of Israel amount to anti-Semitism, which he said strikes him as “like the boy who cried wolf.” “I’ve written a lot of them off,” he said. But in light of recent events, for example on the UCLA and Stanford campuses, he is rethinking that. “The UCLA video in particular has made me wonder if I’d received so many false reports that I’d underestimated the issue,” he said.

8. Freedom of speech for vile statements

On the flip side of No. 7, Jaschik noted that it can be very difficult to expel students for vile things that they say. Still, as an Inside Higher Ed article from April 1 noted, “In years past, many such incidents led to pledges by college leaders to conduct investigations. This year, punishment hasn’t been delayed.”

9. Women and STEM

Although Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education topics, and gender disparities within the STEM fields continue to make headlines, Jaschik noted that studies show that women are being hired at appropriate levels within the sciences. It will be important to keep a close eye on what future studies demonstrate in this regard, he said.

10. Who succeeds in online education?

Online education can be a very divisive topic, with proponents who see it as a solution to every educational challenge and opponents who feel the opposite. There has been some new research that focuses on who succeeds at learning online and the conclusions might run contrary to trends that have been observed previously. Clearly, online education lacks the face-to-face element, and thus the idea of just solving all problems online is increasingly worth questioning, Jaschik said.