Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Ten Higher Ed Story Ideas for 2015-2016 (Plus One Bonus)

Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik. Source: Valencia College/Don Burlinson

In a word, perspective.

That insight binds each of the story ideas Inside Higher Ed Co-Founder and Editor Scott Jaschik offered during his “Top 10 Higher Ed Stories You Should Be Covering This Year” session at an EWA conference last month. From getting ahold of “secret emails” to analyzing the accuracy of student income data, the way journalists tell these stories depends not only on the reporters’ abilities to gather all of the information that exists, but also their willingness to find the facts that might be lurking beneath the surface.

During his presentation at EWA’s 2015 Higher Education Seminar at Valencia College in Orlando, Jaschik advised reporters to keep an eye on the following trends (Watch video):

1. “Secret Email”

It’s well-known that journalists can use open-records requests to gain access to emails from administrators at public universities. So well-known, in fact, that some of these leaders might be using their personal email accounts to conduct university business as a way to avoid having these exchanges exposed to the public. Jaschik cited the example of Phyllis Wise, the former chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who even wrote one such email to a colleague about how they should avoid using email.

“There’s a lot going on that we don’t see even when we do [Freedom of Information Act] requests. And it matters, ” Jaschik said. In Wise’s case, the emails on her personal account directly contradicted some of what the university had originally stated regarding an adjunct faculty member who was dismissed by the university, possibly for making controversial statements.

Jaschik told reporters to ensure that their FOIA requests cover all emails by the officials, not just their university accounts. He also noted that some states ban officials from conducting any university business on private accounts, while other states specify that personal email is subject to FOIA review.

2. Campus Judicial Systems Messing Up in New Ways

For the past several years, the issue of sexual assault has been a heated topic at most colleges and universities. In recent months, the discussion has changed though, as the policies institutions have enacted begin to face scrutiny of their own. “Right now what we’re seeing is colleges that were trying to get tougher losing in court,” Jaschik said.

Campuses that have faced legal challenges in this regard include the University of California-San Diego, the University of Michigan and Middlebury College. “What we have is a series of cases—and there are a bunch more in the works and others that I’m not mentioning—where campuses are being told: ‘No, these systems you have put in place are not legal.’”

3. Life Under “Affirmative Consent”

In California and New York, students are now legally required to get explicit permission before engaging in sex with other students, and many other individual colleges across the country have also adopted this policy of “affirmative consent.” “Not ‘no means no,’ but ‘yes means yes’,” Jaschik said.

One story idea Jaschik suggested is how campuses operating under affirmative consent educate their students—particularly during the orientation process—about what that policy requires them to do. For example, Indiana University this year added a song to its orientation sessions.

4. It’s All in How You Ask the Question

To better understand the scope of sexual assault on campus, colleges and universities have started to survey students about their experiences. But depending on the wording of the question, the results can paint dramatically different pictures of student safety. Does the question that asks whether a student has experienced sexual assault define an incident as penetration-related, unwanted kissing/touching, or both? Other important differences in the phrasing of questions might include whether the survey covers acts on campus, off campus or both, particularly with regard to where the college’s Greek system is located. “You really need to dig into the numbers to find the trends,” Jaschik said.

5. Will the Chinese Keep Coming, and Will We Keep Getting Their Money?

Jaschik told attendees that many public universities aim to have students from China comprise 10 percent of their institutions’ undergraduate enrollment. These efforts started several years ago, as public universities and colleges sought revenue to replace the state-funding cuts they faced during the Great Recession. Is that goal still possible—or desirable—now that the Chinese economy is facing its own turbulence?

Jaschik noted that American universities tend to enroll students from the wealthier strata of Chinese society, who might be more insulated from that nation’s economic struggles. “We are not recruiting smart but poor Chinese students; we’re recruiting rich Chinese students,” he said. One story possibility would be to check whether colleges are charging international students an additional fee beyond out-of-state tuition and whether that money is reserved entirely for support services for these students or does it go into the general fund.

6. Using Technology the Wrong Way (to Screw Students)

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that when the University of Central Florida didn’t have enough seats in some classrooms to accommodate all the students simultaneously, the institution began using “lecture capture” technology to put those class sessions online for students who couldn’t get into the room. Is that practice appropriate, given that students didn’t enroll in an online course? 

“They think that when they enrolled in a class that means there’s a seat for them,” Jaschik said. “If you’ve got any big public university, ask if they’re doing this.” It’s a practice that might reveal other concerns regarding a college’s capacity to offer enough courses or otherwise fully accommodate all of its students.

7. Disruptors, and Whether They Are High-Quality

In recent years, many new companies such as General Assembly, JumpCourse and multiple code academies have started to offer postsecondary classes without being specifically attached to a formal college or university. While these companies might provide improved access and courses that are more closely tailored to the skills employers want, they also have raised concerns about whether their courses are rigorous enough to match the traditional expectations of postsecondary education.

Jaschik cited the example of JumpCourse. An Inside Higher Ed reporter took a marketing course this company offers and was able to pass it, despite not viewing many of the course’s lectures and videos. He simply took the tests, which used a format that told him the correct answers for questions he got wrong. “If you can remember which of A, B, C and D was the answer, you can not only pass, but pass with honors,” Jaschik said. “Whatever is going on in your community, check it out. Take the courses.”

8. Affirmative Action Back to the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court this fall will once again hear arguments in the case of Fisher v. Texas, in which a white woman who applied to the University of Texas claims that she was denied admission because of the Longhorns’ use of race in the admissions process. “I am not sure that there are five justices who will back affirmative action, and—if they don’t—that is going to be a huge thing for higher education,” Jaschik said.

If affirmative action in college admissions is prohibited, the impact for higher education could be profound, not just for the colleges with highly selective admissions processes, but also for other initiatives that many universities use to increase diversity on their campuses, such as summer programs for black and Latino high school students, Jaschik said.  He also advised journalists to be prepared to cover racial incidents on their campuses that might be related to the trial. “The Supreme Court considering affirmative action is not a good moment for American higher education to get along,” he said.

9. Higher Ed in the 2016 Presidential Election

“It is a remarkable situation that right now the major Democratic candidates—and some not-so major Democratic candidates—are all united about wanting to radically change the way we finance public higher education and the way students at public institutions pay for college,” Jaschik said. While there are notable differences among the candidates’ proposals, they largely agree in their willingness to provide a large infusion of federal funds to help make colleges either debt-free for students or free.

For story ideas, Jaschik suggested reporters explore how university leaders in their region are responding to the debt-free proposals. While one Inside Higher Ed poll suggests that leaders in higher education support the idea, few college presidents or top administrators have voiced their support on-the-record. Reporters also could examine how the smaller, “non-famous” private colleges they cover might be affected if the public institutions with whom they compete for students suddenly are able to offer a debt-free education.

10. How to Measure the Income of College Students

One key piece of data the U.S. Department of Education included in its highly anticipated update to its College Scorecard tool is income data that lets users see the average income for students of a particular college or university 10 years after they first enrolled there. While these data are a boon to reporters and students who have long wanted to know more about the “value” of a degree from a specific institution, there are many caveats journalists should consider when using these data, Jaschik said.

Because the Scorecard income data are based on students who received federal financial aid, many students at particular types of institutions might not be counted for these purposes. The Scorecard also only offers an institution-wide average, so users can’t tell the difference in earnings between an English major and an engineering major at the same school. It also doesn’t count students who are in deferment on their student loans because they are in graduate school. “I’m not saying that the income data don’t matter,” Jaschik said. “But use them with care, because there are a lot of issues about them and yet they’re being used as a very quick way to grade colleges.”

11. New Rounds of the Culture Wars

“This was the summer of conservative groups looking at the Twitter feeds of liberal academics,” Jaschik said. For example, one Boston University professor faced criticism for suggesting that the problem with race on campuses was white male students. Many faculty members who were supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement also were targeted, with conservative groups saying they should be fired.

Other culture war issues include the debate over “trigger warnings”—the advance notice that some professors provide to warn students that they might find particular elements of the course offensive—and inclusion and support services for transgender students.