Blog: Higher Ed Beat

‘Ban the Box,’ Campus Carry and More Higher Ed Story Ideas for Reporters

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed shares 10 story ideas with higher education reporters at a recent EWA seminar. Source: Arizona State University

As has become tradition at EWA’s higher education conferences, Inside Higher Ed Co-founder and Editor Scott Jaschik offered a series of story ideas for reporters to pursue this academic year.


What does the term “innovation” mean in regard to higher education, and should journalists take colleges’ definitions at face value?

This story idea stemmed from the theme of EWA’s higher education seminar, “Accelerating Innovation in Higher Education: New Ideas for Colleges and Newsrooms,” held at Arizona State University, ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the most innovative school in the country.

Jaschik advised journalists to be critical when college administrators tout the changes taking place on their campuses. He noted that innovation doesn’t guarantee improvements and that the effects of such changes can differ depending on the student group and type of institution.

Campus Carry

Guns on campus remain a controversial topic across the country. Think Texas, where a new law allowing students to carry guns on campus took effect on the 50th anniversary of a deadly shooting from the clock tower at The University of Texas at Austin that killed 17 people on Aug. 1, 1966.

Some UT Austin professors are currently suing the institution over the right to ban guns from classrooms. Meanwhile, another ongoing suit from pro-gun advocates argues that the school isn’t “campus carry enough” because faculty members can ban guns from their personal offices, Jaschik said.

There are nine states that permit concealed weapons on campus, another 10 that allow them in parked cars on campus and 10 that have complete bans on campus carry. The rest of the states leave the decision to colleges, which, left to their own devices, generally choose to ban them from campus, Jaschik said.

He has yet to meet a president or faculty member who wants guns on campus.

“If you see one, that’s a good story,” he said.

Ban the Box

Should college applications ask prospective students to reveal whether they have been convicted of a felony?

“Ban the box” advocates say the question may make applicants – particularly a large number of young black and Latino males with arrest records — uncomfortable and deter them from finishing the application.

On the other hand, campuses are under intense pressure from students and their families to maintain a safe environment, Jaschik said. What if applicants have been convicted of rape, murder or acts of terrorism?

Another factor to consider is the way the question is handled if colleges do choose to include it on their application. If colleges say that the question should be handled thoughtfully, how are they training admissions officers to deal with a checked box?

Jaschik said journalists can get a good idea of the ongoing debate by watching a video of a trustees meeting at the State University of New York earlier this month, in which the board ultimately voted to ban the box.

Elections and Tensions

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has proposed a plan for higher education that would eliminate tuition costs at community colleges and for students at in-state public colleges and universities whose families earn less than $125,000 a year.

Check with local colleges to see if the administration is in favor of Hillary Clinton’s tuition-free college plan (hint: private colleges aren’t big fans) and check out recent projections of its effects produced by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, Jaschik suggested.

Related to the elections, there has also been plenty of story fodder surrounding tensions on campus during this polarizing campaign season — perhaps the most dramatic example being a massive collision between Trump supporters and protesters from minority student groups at the University of Illinois at Chicago in March that ended in a canceled Donald Trump rally, as well as injuries and arrests.

Other campuses are dealing with more subtle issues, such as “Trump 2016” drawings on their sidewalks that lead to students feeling unsafe.

College Wealth

The question of why some colleges have more low-income students than others is a really valid issue, said Jaschik, and how colleges spend their wealth is worth reporters’ scrutiny.

“I don’t mean to suggest wealthy institutions can’t do amazing things with money,” he said, but cautioned against writing knee-jerk stories when institutions receive multimillion dollar donations, i.e. “when the wealthy get more money to educate the wealthy.”

Questions to consider: Why? Do they need it? Why does a philanthropist give to an already wealthy institution instead of a community college? How could the money have had a different impact elsewhere?

(For guidance on the do’s and don’ts for analyzing college endowments, check out this Higher Ed Beat post by EWA’s Mikhail Zinshteyn.)

Union Movement

Labor relations in higher education are becoming a more prominent issue, said Jaschik, involving universities as employers as opposed to merely educators.

In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities can form unions. Just prior to the decision, Columbia University increased its compensation for graduate student workers, and Northwestern University has since expanded its parental leave policy from six weeks for mothers to 12 weeks of leave for all new parents.   

“Maybe they just had these epiphanies that it was time to be nice to their grad students, but I think shows that we’re going to see more and more attention to this,” Jaschik said.

Students Abroad

American students are safer, by a factor of two, abroad than they are at home. But recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and Nice, where American students were among the victims, have schools and families on edge. The attacks suggest that traditionally safe places to visit no longer fit that description, Jaschik said.

Then, there’s the Zika virus, active throughout South and Central America and making its way into the United States.

Journalists can tackle this story idea by examining the kinds of training students receive before they study abroad. Are there emergency alert systems set up? What are schools spending on insurance to evacuate students, if necessary? And are schools discouraging students from studying abroad in light of recent events?

Apparent For-Profit Demise

David Lee Murphy Jr. was due to start classes this month at ITT’s Seattle campus. He paid his tuition and even bought books. The day after Labor Day he awoke to an email informing them that the school had shut down.

“I was angry. Still am. They basically took their money and ran,” Murphy said.

Murphy lost nearly a year of his post 9-11 GI Bill money at ITT – $7,000 per quarter that the government provided him to get a debt-free education. It’s money that as of now, he won’t be getting back.  

Meanwhile, ITT’s shutdown cost veteran Michael Horsley more than his education money. He could lose his home. That’s because he gets a basic housing allowance from the VA that pays him $1,500 a month for his rent. But to keep getting it, he has to be enrolled in school.

That’s an excerpt from a recent KPCC story, humanizing the effects of ITT Technical Institute’s sudden closure earlier this month after the U.S. Department of Education imposed stricter sanctions on the for-profit chain.

ITT’s closure comes a year after the embattled Corinthian Colleges chain closed its doors, leaving nearly 80,000 students facing debt collectors, according to a recent investigation.  

Jaschik told journalists to track where students of these defunct for-profits are going and examine what sorts of recruitment offers they’re getting from other colleges.

Middle East Tensions

Tensions in the Middle East are getting worse, which may not initially seem like a story idea for U.S. higher education reporters — except that these tensions are spilling over onto college campuses.

Already this school year, the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a student-led Palestinian ethnic studies course, claiming it hadn’t gone through the proper vetting procedures after Jewish students and civil rights groups complained that the class seemed to be anti-Semitic in nature. The university later reinstated the course after a debate over academic freedom.

At Syracuse University, tensions flared when a professor rescinded an invitation to an Israeli New York University professor to present his film at an academic conference, “The Place of Religion in Film,” saying that his nationality would upset Syracuse colleagues who favor a boycott of Israeli academe. Jaschik reported the story for Inside Higher Ed earlier this month.

Race on Campus

Under the broad theme of “race on campus,” Jaschik had many possibilities for story ideas, including a look at whether colleges are keeping promises to minority student groups, presidential leadership, the relationship of “bias assessment response teams” to academic freedom, and ongoing instances of racism on campus.

“Many presidents last year at various points in time acted on a principle of, ‘Please do what we need to do to get students out of my office,’ and they made a lot of pledges,” Jaschik said of last school year in which protests at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of its president and chancellor, sparked similar campaigns on campuses nationwide.

Some promises, like hiring a chief diversity officer, are easier to accomplish. But others, like hiring more black and Latino professors, are more difficult because the pool of Ph.D.s to choose from is not diverse, he said.

Journalists can also cover stories about safe spaces and trigger warnings, a conversation that recently returned to national headlines when a University of Chicago dean wrote a letter to new students stating that the college condones neither because of its commitment to free speech. In other recent news, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem can lead to interesting pieces, as the conversation shifts to appropriate steps to take toward racism.