Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Seven Higher Ed Stories Journalists Should Be Covering This Year

Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik started his annual listing of higher education stories ripe for coverage this upcoming year by asking journalists to do better when choosing which news developments to cover.

In May, just before Jaschik’s presentation at the Education Writers Association’s conference in Boston, President Obama’s daughter Malia had recently committed to attending Harvard University and taking a “gap year.”

“It is not news that a Sidwell Friends student gets into Harvard,” Jaschik said, referring to the prestigious private school Obama attends and bemoaning the onslaught of “puff pieces” about gap years that followed.

“A gap year makes a lot of sense for a highly stressed successful high school (student). Gap years are actually very bad for low-income students. If you have enough money to go to college, go,” Jaschik said.

Instead, Jaschik suggested several other interesting and important higher education story ideas that journalists who cover American colleges and universities should pay attention to this year, from the presidential election to ongoing tensions involving civil rights and diversity.

Here is a listing of some of those story ideas with commentary from Jaschik about why they warrant coverage.

1) Clinton versus Trump on higher education

The  Clinton plan on college affordability—she dubbed it the New College Compact—is “worth a lot of attention,” Jaschik said, particularly how the proposal is received by various higher education institutions, especially private schools, which are not included in her plan. Clinton’s initial proposal aimed to make it possible for all students to be able to graduate from a public college debt-free, but in July, she revised her proposal so that public colleges would be tuition-free for all students from families that earn $85,000 or less per year. The tuition-free plan was a staple of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“Not everyone likes the Clinton and Sanders approach, but it is a serious plan to deal with what has been a true erosion for state support of higher education,” Jaschik said. “It takes on the debt issue significantly. It is a shift in federal policy away from just giving grants via aid to supporting types of institutions. Private colleges are not exactly thrilled about this.”

Jaschik suggested writing articles about what journalists’ local higher education institutions think about Clinton’s plan, and what private colleges are planning to do if it becomes the law of the land.

At the event, Jaschik did not have much to say much about Donald Trump’s plans for higher education because not many details were available when he spoke in early May. Since then, Jaschik has interviewed one of Trump’s policy advisers who said the presumptive Republican presidential nominee likely will pursue initiatives that remove the federal government from the student loan process while also making colleges more accountable when their students default on loans.

Jaschik also suggested interesting stories on “free speech debates” on campus set off by protesters of Trump’s policies and messages.

Another possible outcome of the presidential election has received much less attention, Jaschik said: If a Republican wins, he predicted there will be an “immediate shift away from serious enforcement of sexual assault on campuses.”

“Republicans cannot say Title IX doesn’t matter,” Jaschik said. “What they can and have done is starve the Office for Civil Rights, give it a very small budget. This isn’t going to be talked about in the campaign but in terms of consequences, it will be huge.”

2) Tensions that go beyond black and white

There are many campus tensions over race, religion and ethnicity that haven’t gotten as much attention as the protests last fall that largely centered on whether colleges were welcoming and supportive of black students. One such issue is the harassment of Western scholars who study India and Hinduism.

“They are (being) forced out of their fields because they do research and writing that doesn’t follow the current party line about Hinduism,” Jaschik said. “If you have people who are doing research on India, it’s worth checking out that story.

Another example of these tensions is the reports of anti-Semitism on various campuses.

“It’s a complicated issue that needs some nuanced local reporting.”

3) The disappearing Saudis (and other foreign students)

More and more colleges and universities have been enrolling international students, in part because of a desire for student diversity, but also because these students typically do not receive financial aid and thus pay the full costs of tuition and room and board. For instance, the Saudi government for more than a decade had offered very generous scholarships for its citizens to study abroad. But as that nation has been affected by declining oil prices, the Saudi government has announced it is changing the criteria for how they will award these scholarships.

“This is a big money issue to a lot of colleges,” Jaschik said. “It doesn’t take losing that many full-pay students to mess up a lot of colleges.”

4) Tough questions over endowments

There’s been more interest from members of Congress and state legislatures over the endowments of institutions—something that has colleges and universities very nervous, especially if they’re asking for increased state funding or raising their tuition.

“Most college leaders would prefer the image of the struggling entrepreneurial college, not the college with $30 billion in the bank,” Jaschik said. “This is very bad PR because it forces questions about how they spend their money.”

5) Decision reversal on sex assault lawsuits

There has been a series of male students accused of sexual assault who have successfully challenged the accusations by arguing that the  college’s disciplinary process violated their right to due process.

“If colleges botch the system, no one is going to be found guilty of anything,” Jaschik said. “The pendulum has swung against the colleges.”

6) Higher ed versus your state

Are your higher education institutions disconnected from the values of your state, Jaschik asked? From campus “carry” legislation in several states to Tennessee legislators defunding the diversity office to the North Carolina law that restricts bathroom use by transgender people, colleges are struggling to follow along.

“Values of inclusivity that are widespread in higher education may clash with some political values,” Jaschik said. “I don’t know of a single case where a college president or (faculty) senate has said ‘we want guns’ (on campus).” And regarding the transgender bathroom issue, “Most of higher education views this as a settled issue.”

7) Higher ed may embrace issues other don’t

Inside Higher Ed recently wrote about a new movement on campus for free tampons. The first people who commented on the story said students have become out of control with their demands, but students pointed out in the story that most campuses provide condoms for free. In a couple cases, college presidents viewed it as a public health issue and backed the students.

“The point is that a basic health need is routinely provided to some people in some cases,” Jaschik said. “It’s click bait … (but) there’s a real issue there and it’s typical of some of what’s exciting in higher education.”