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Higher Ed Beat: What Are the Top 10 Stories on College Campuses?

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I’ll admit it – I look forward every fall when Scott Jaschik shares his “cheat sheet”of story ideas at EWA’s annual Higher Education Seminar.This year we met at Northeastern University, and Scott didn’t disappoint.We asked journalists who attended the seminar to contribute posts, and today’s guest blogger is Michael Vasquez of the Miami Herald.For more on higher education issues, including community collegesMOOCs and affordability, check out EWA’s Story Starters.

Just how jam-packed with news is higher education these days? During the always-popular “The 10 Higher Ed Stories You Should Be Covering” session at EWA’s recent Higher Ed Seminar, the list unexpectedly expanded into a Top 13. (To catch the the last three, check out the video of the session.)

Session host Scott Jaschik, an editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, told the gathered reporters that there are lots of good things happening in higher ed, but he also added that 2013 is “a period of tremendous tension, tremendous challenges, and in too many cases, I think not all the facts are known…we really need you guys!”

And, now, we give you this year’s list of important stories:

1. International students – particularly Brazil. Colleges all across the country are seeing a massive influx of students from Brazil, Jaschik said. The Latin American nation is suffering from overcrowding at its own universities, and Brazil’s government is tackling the problem by paying for its students to attend U.S. institutions. For cash-strapped universities, international students are typically welcomed because of the higher tuition they must pay. But Jaschik warns it is “dangerous” for universities to rely too heavily on foreign students for revenue – if Brazil’s economy suddenly took a nosedive, would these colleges be prepared?

2. International partnerships – such as Confucius Institutes. There are hundreds of colleges that have formed Confucius Institute partnerships with the Chinese government, but Jaschik said these partnerships have aroused concern from faculty in some Asian Studies departments. With schools receiving money from China to participate, there are worries about autonomy when colleges enter into these deals. “The whole area of international needs scrutiny,” Jaschik said.

3. Competency-based education. The traditional credit-hour concept in higher education is increasingly being questioned. One alternative that is gaining steam is competency-based education, which awards credits to students based on what they know rather than how long they have been in a course or school. It’s worthwhile for reporters to check on how their local institutions are responding to this debate, Jaschik said.

4. The Obama plan on college accountability. Though there are still a lot of details to be worked out, President Obama is pushing a rating system for colleges that will judge them on both quality and affordability. It’s too soon to know which schools will benefit (or be harmed) by the president’s proposal, but Jaschik said reporters should be asking what type of rating criteria would work as good measuring sticks. Also worth a look: Do students even want these ratings?

5. The fudging and faking of rankings. The U.S.News & World Report rankings are well-read and highly influential – but they’re also beset by a never-ending string of cheating scandals. Things such as average student SAT scores can be calculated in ways that are deliberately misleading – all in the hopes of boosting a ranking. Ask your local colleges: How do you calculate the numbers that you send to U.S.News?

6. Affirmative action. Don’t take it for granted that the Supreme Court’s Fisher v. Texas decision means affirmative action will survive, Jaschik warns. He also suggests reporters check with their local schools to see if they are standing pat in the wake of the court decision, or if administrators at these colleges are taking the initiative and changing how they handle race in college admissions. Asian-American students are also an interesting story within the realm of affirmative action, Jaschik says, because Asian-American students’ test scores have increased across all categories, while every other race has seen their scores go down. This dynamic means white students can sometimes become the beneficiaries of affirmative action, Jaschik said.

7. Undermatching. Why do highly talented, low-income students often fail to apply to the most prestigious colleges? One possible cause that Jaschik suggests reporters examine is the practice of colleges visiting only a handful of well-known “magnet” schools when they are trying to attract low-income or minority students. Though colleges only have so many recruiters to go around, this pattern of always recruiting at the same schools means that academically strong students at other high schools tend to get ignored. What high schools do your colleges visit on a regular basis?

8. Adjunct professors. The story of an adjunct professor at Duquesne University who died poor and without health insurance (after teaching at the university for 25 years) recently has garnered national attention. Is it fair to pay a longtime professor $10,000 a year with no benefits? Reporters should be trying to localize the story. “Look at your local colleges,” Jaschik said. “How do they use adjuncts? How do they pay adjuncts? Is there a union movement?”

9. Sex-assault policies. Jaschik told reporters “write about this at your colleges that aren’t well-known.” Much has been written about the inadequate job that colleges do when investigating sexual assault, but many of those stories focus on nationally prominent schools. Are the same problems – such as schools placing pressure on victims or choosing to handle the crime through ill-equipped campus disciplinary boards – happening at lesser-known schools?

10. MOOC-like entities. Partnerships such as Georgia Tech’s deal with Udacity (which will offer a bargain-priced online master’s degree in computer science) may represent the next phase of the MOOC experiment (Massive Open Online Courses). Such efforts signal a shift away from offering courses completely free of charge. Will these new discounted programs threaten the survival of more-traditional (and more expensive) online degree offerings? With all the hoopla and hype surrounding MOOC-like entities, Jaschik advises taking a good look at whether the numbers behind these initiatives truly add up.