Blog: Higher Ed Beat

5 Tips for Covering Students’ Paths to College
Reporters offer advice on tracking down students, getting past roadblocks

This school year, two Chalkbeat reporters in Detroit and Newark are examining whether low-income students from struggling schools are ready for the rigors of college.

Education statistics tell a sobering story: For many students, no. But Lori Higgins, the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit, and Patrick Wall, a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, wanted to delve deeper into the challenges spelled out in the data.

So, after months of research, “casting,” and reporting, Higgins and Wall published the first installments of “Ready or Not,” an ongoing series that intimately chronicles the struggles and successes of five first-year college students as they chart their path toward completing college.

For the students highlighted in Chalkbeat’s series, the roadblocks to finishing college started before they set foot on a university campus. Though graduation rates in Detroit Public Schools hover near the statewide average of 77 percent, nearly half of the students who go to college have to take remedial math and reading courses. And in Newark, only 16 percent of graduates from traditional high schools earn college degrees within six years.

Something similar is happening in Cleveland, where Plain Dealer education journalist Patrick O’Donnell reported “Pathways to Prosperity,” a 10-part series on the “skills gap” in Northeast Ohio. About 30,000 well-paying jobs have gone unfulfilled as a large percentage of Cleveland graduates leave high school unprepared for technical careers that require additional training.

Here are some more takeaways, shared at a recent Education Writers Association seminar on college and career pathways, from how the three reporters have approached “pathways” stories.

Going Far and Wide in Search of Solutions

O’Donnell, a longtime education reporter for The Plain Dealer, traveled from Cleveland to multiple countries to report the “Pathways to Prosperity.” 

The series took O’Donnell and his colleague, business reporter Olivera Perkins, to Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where they studied paid apprenticeship programs that give students as young as age 15 practical experience in fields such as retail, tourism and manufacturing.

The European model is a boon for businesses and students that could lead to potential solutions for Northeast Ohio, O’Donnell found.

“We wanted to look at the different directions that kids could follow to meaningful careers,” he said.

When Schools Put Up Access Roadblocks, Look for Other Ways to Find Students

The Detroit and Newark school districts were not cooperative with Chalkbeat reporters’ efforts to find students they could feature because of wariness that their reporting would reflect negatively on the districts, Higgins and Wall said.

So they looked elsewhere.

As Higgins covered a local college event, she also sought out students who would be willing to participate. One Detroit charter school, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, allowed her to spend a day observing student discussions about their plans for college, where she found more students for her series.

After hitting access roadblocks with Newark Public Schools, Wall shifted tactics and began reaching out to local universities. That led him to the Educational Opportunity Fund at Rutgers University – Newark, a program aimed at assisting underprepared students of color with obtaining a college degree. That program led him to Yamin Reddick, a student who became the focus of Wall’s reporting because, as the reporter put it, “his story was really representative of a lot of students in Newark.”

Finding Local Connections

Before O’Donnell and his colleague went abroad, they first looked for ways to tie their international reporting effort to Cleveland.

The Plain Dealer team reached out to local companies with roots in Europe. Eventually, they found a Swiss company south of Cleveland that had been trying to start a version of the apprenticeship model so prevalent in Europe.

They also connected with the local German Chamber of Commerce, which was eager to share its apprenticeship model with other countries. The chamber helped arrange visits to apprenticeship programs abroad, where reporters highlighted European countries’ sophisticated system for rating diplomas and the strong integration of technical education in students’ high-school education.

Prepare to Be ‘Ghosted’ – and Then Be Persistent

Higgins and Wall’s stories include many rich details – such as the lengths a high school valedictorian took to get help with a remedial math course, and an emotional scene from another student who’d been given a second chance to attend Rutgers-Newark.

They gathered those details through access, time invested in cultivating relationships with sources, and students’ willingness to honestly share their experiences.

But that access is not without its risks, the reporters said, adding that it’s been worth the effort to get honest, nuanced portraits of students.

Higgins has had trouble at times getting in contact with the four students she wrote about in her initial story. Though some of that can be chalked up to first-year college students balancing multiple priorities and commitments, one student who initially was excited to participate in the series had been unreachable for more than a month, Higgins said.

“They (teens and young adults) communicate in very different ways than we adults do,” Higgins said. “I’ve been ghosted so many times.”

Wall also stopped hearing from the student he was following after the fall semester began. Yamin, the Rutgers-Newark freshman, immediately began to struggle with a remedial math course (a roadblock for several underprepared students that Wall planned to focus on next) and had stopped attending classes.

Though Yamin indicated that he was pleased with the initial story, his mom recently told Wall he was reluctant to continue being interviewed because he felt some shame about struggling in his college classes.

“That’s one of the challenges of following students this closely and doing it in real time like we have,” Wall said.

… And DO Apply for an EWA Reporting Fellowship

All three reporters were recipients of EWA’s Reporting Fellowship program, which provides financial awards and other assistance to reporters and newsrooms pursuing ambitious education stories and projects.

O’Donnell said the fellowship was “a huge help” because it covered travel expenses for him and his colleague to do on-the-ground reporting in Europe. For Higgins, some of the fellowship dollars have gone toward hiring freelancers to free her up from the beat’s daily grind so she can focus on reporting for the series.

The fellowship also has helped get Chalkbeat editors on board with investing in the project, Wall said, and recognize the “Ready or Not” series as “something that we need to devote time to, and something that we need to deliver on.”