Nine of the Hottest Stories on the Higher Ed Beat This Year
Campus racial conflicts, sports corruption scandals, and a new partisan divide over the perceived benefits of college are among the biggest potential storylines for journalists covering higher education these days, according to Inside Higher Ed co-founder and editor Scott Jaschik.
He noted that Pew Research Center and Gallup released surveys this year showing a majority of Republicans have a negative opinion of higher education, while most Democrats hold a favorable view. “This is a historic shift. …This is new,” Jaschik said during a presentation at an Education Writers Association seminar this month in Atlanta. “It’s important to remember that historically there has actually been bipartisan support for higher education. Our great universities were built up with bipartisan support.”
One way for reporters to cover this story is to monitor Republican state lawmakers’ actions on policy and budget decisions, Jaschik said during his presentation, always a highlight of EWA’s annual seminar. Republicans hold a majority in most state legislatures, and thus hold a lot of power over public university and college boards.
- New racial tensions: Jaschik also recommended journalists take a close look at the growing number of racial incidents on campuses.
“I think you should be writing about how this is getting really bad and really ugly,” Jaschik said. “This morning, as I was looking for news to add to our site, I realized that just racist graffiti (incidents) don’t rise to the news level anymore because we could fill our website with” stories about racist graffiti, slurs or even fights in which racial animosity may have played a part.
Though the actions are taking place on college campuses, some of these incidents are sparked by non-students, Jaschik said. In several cases, he said, outside white nationalist groups put posters up on college campuses.
“I would do stories on what your institutions are doing preemptively on this issue,” he said; “not just after an incident, but how are they checking in with students? Are they looking at what students are saying on social media?”
- Athlete recruiting scandals: The recent scandal over basketball recruiting in the NCAA has been a top storyline for many in higher education circles, but Jaschik wondered why there weren’t more stories going deeper on the issue.
Jaschik said much of the scandal coverage he has seen suggests the problem is just a few corrupt people. It is time, he said, for reporters to investigate whether the entire system is inherently corrupt.
“We take seriously that … it’s just a matter of finding the right reform initiative” to end the corruption, Jaschik said. “I think it’s time for us all to be asking presidents of schools that play big-time sports: ‘Do you actually believe that?’ Or will this scandal force people to move beyond that and say maybe there is something hopelessly wrong with this system?”
- Affirmative action for conservatives: A “new affirmative action” with a conservative twist is also making headlines across the country, Jaschik said. Many institutions of higher education have announced plans to increase recruitment in rural America following the election of President Trump. Some colleges and universities have also set goals to attract more politically conservative students.
“This comes out of election soul-searching by a lot of college presidents who were worried that they were dots of blue in a sea of red,” Jaschik said.For example, a recent Inside Higher Ed story reported that Warren Wilson College set an explicit goal to recruit more conservative students, which would be a shift for the liberal arts college near Asheville, N.C. And Jaschik noted that a new survey of admissions directors by his news outlet finds that 9 percent of public colleges, and 8 percent of private colleges, are stepping up recruitment of conservative students. Jaschik recommended journalists ask their local institutions how their recruitment plans have changed – if at all – in the post-election world.
- Historic re-evaluations: Re-evaluations of U.S. history and public honors will also continue to make news, Jaschik predicts. While a growing number of public institutions are removing monuments and building names honoring Confederate soldiers, Jaschik reminded journalists there are many examples of university buildings named after other controversial figures in all parts of the country.
“There is a whole set of stories to be done on institutional histories that go well beyond Confederate generals,” Jaschik said. “There are a lot of really important history and honors stories to be done at Northern institutions.”
For example, some medical schools have statues and monuments honoring James Marion Sims, also known as the “Father of Gynecology.” However, Sims earned that title in part from work that involved experimenting on slaves without consent or anesthesia.
“It’s worth looking at the histories of the institutions you cover, even if you are not in the South,” Jaschik said.
- Money stories: Following the money is a always a fruitful journalistic pursuit, Jaschik reminded reporters, offering three ideas in that realm.
In some recent incidents, for example, donors have tried to buy legitimacy with large gifts. “This needs scrutiny. I see too many articles with just ‘College got big gift,’” Jaschik said. “Many colleges are desperate for money because states have abandoned them. This is a really important moment for all of us as journalists to ask questions of every big gift.”
Digging into the details of mergers between both for-profit and non-profit colleges is an important watchdog role, too and can generate impactful stories, he said.
Jaschik also urged an unusual “money” story: Examining the fate of proposed cuts in federal education funding put forward by the Trump administration, many of which appear unlikely to win approval even in a Republican-controlled Congress.
- Free speech: While every story requires careful fact-checking, Jaschik urged reporters to take extra care when covering controversies over free speech issues on campus, or criticism of professors who have made what some students (and professional commentators) may claim are controversial statements. (See, for example, the case of Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa.) “I worry some journalists have published first and asked questions later,” Jaschik said.
“This is very hard to resist in the web era, but concerning the attacks on (allegedly) controversial professors saying (allegedly) controversial things, I think we need to do a better job of asking questions” and providing the context surrounding the statements, Jaschik said.