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Reporting on Biden’s Higher Education Policies in a Divisive Era

Tips for covering state and federal policies, enrollment declines, campus challenges and more.

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University leaders hope to take advantage of a potentially historic influx of federal funding, re-engage students who left during the pandemic and stave off longer-term enrollment drops.

They face these challenges amid bitter fights over mask and vaccine mandates, and political polarization over affirmative action, freedom of speech and allegations of “cancel culture.”

“The most general issue that worries the vast majority of college and university presidents is how you return to normal campus operations when you’re a battlefield in the culture wars,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “This something that is being fought out on every campus in the country, one by one.’’

Reporters covering this divisive time got tips during a virtual panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 Higher Education Seminar, which kicked off Oct. 18. Joining were Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, and Andrew Kelly, senior vice president for strategy and policy at the University of North Carolina System. Delece Smith-Barrow of Politico moderated the session.

Here are some highlights and key takeaways from the discussion.

Higher Education Policies and Debates

  • Build Back Better proposals. Watch how President Joe Biden’s agenda gets whittled down as it makes its way through Congress. As the sprawling social spending package has shrunk from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion and then to an expected $1.75 trillion or $1.9 trillion, parts for higher education have been eliminated or reduced in scope. A proposal for free community college tuition, for example, has already been dropped from the plan, Biden said in a CNN Town Hall on Oct. 21. Also, keep an eye on the fate of Pell grant increases, plans to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and efforts to boost student retention and research.Hartle predicted a final package of about $2 trillion, saying “A lot of stuff is going to fall off the truck.” Along the way, be sure to ask critics of spending for their views.
  • Student debt confusion. At the start of the pandemic, Congress agreed borrowers could get a pause in repaying student loans. About 22 million people took advantage of that offer. But the breather ends on Feb. 1, 2022, and the U.S. Department of Education faces a complicated task in restarting the repayment program. At least three contractors who collected federal student loans for the government quit that business, so many students will get letters from entities they’ve never heard of demanding money. “I suspect this is going to be a very messy restart,” Hartle said.Proposals to forgive student debt raise big questions for reporters to explore. If the federal government suddenly forgives all the student debt that’s outstanding, what happens to loans taken out the very next day? Will loan programs still exist? If loans aren’t expected to be repaid, colleges may question why they need to keep their prices low.“We’ve got to be careful about the potential for perverse incentives across the board for tuition pricing,” Kelly said.

Tips for Covering Colleges Amid Uncertainty

  • Look beyond the Ivy League. Readers eat up stories with Harvard in the headline, but elite private schools serve a tiny fraction of students.  “Community colleges and the regional institutions are the workhorses of education,” Reed said.She said stories that affect far more lives come from state colleges, so look at their innovations, new delivery models, efforts to give students work experience that can lead to real jobs, and initiatives like “early college” that let high schoolers take college courses for credit.
  • Don’t generalize from extreme examples. Some reporters tend to look at outliers – such as a school where a high percentage of students borrow a ton of money or one with a massive endowment – and generalize from them, Hartle said. “What’s going on in an individual institution can be very important … but it can be completely unrelated to what’s going on in other parts of higher education,” he said. “Nobody would write a story about quarterbacks in the National Football League and just talk about Tom Brady.”
  • Examine enrollment declines. The pandemic hurt enrollment in many colleges, especially among Black, Latino and other under-represented groups who already faced more obstacles to entry. Reporters can ask local institutions what they’re doing to recoup lost students.Kelly, of North Carolina, said his state’s governor had allocated emergency funds to re-engage students who quit, and his university system is working with partners to deploy more college advisors in the field. In the next few years, some areas nationwide face a flattening or decline in high school graduates and a decrease in residents aged 18 to 24 years old. “There is a bigger reckoning that’s coming for all of us,” he said.Reed encouraged reporters to explore efforts to close equity gaps.  Louisiana is looking for new ways to harness food stamps and other public benefits to ease barriers for low-income students, single parents, veterans and people in the justice system. Food insecurity, housing problems and transportation can be major hurdles to access. “If we don’t get there, we won’t have social mobility; we will not have the opportunity to move people from poverty to prosperity,” she said.
  • The data challenge. It’s not easy to get an up-to-date picture of what’s happening in colleges nationwide due to lags in reporting federal data, and some states’ tendency to define metrics like “completion” differently.Panelists advised talking to officials running state higher education institutions, who often compare notes across the country.Others to try: Organizations representing private colleges; the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center; the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association; advocacy groups like the Education Trust.The Southern Regional Education Board has a 2021 report on college affordability in 16 southern states.