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The Top 11 Higher Ed Stories Likely to Make Headlines This Year

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik highlights COVID, Title IX, affirmative action and more.

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COVID-19 will continue to be a major story topic for the 2020-21 school year, but reporters should also look at the future of affirmative action and race on college campuses, according to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik.

Jaschik, veteran higher education journalist and editor, listed his top 11 topics he thinks every higher education reporter should be ready to cover.

The concern for COVID-19 and what it will mean for universities and colleges across the country should still be at the forefront of higher education journalist reporting. With the virus could come major changes, Jaschik said during the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar in September.

1. What is college like now?

Even schools that are welcoming students back to the campus are holding many of their courses online, Jaschik noted.

Reporters should ask “what is missing” from the college and learning experience, Jaschik said. “Are students talking to each other outside of their classes?” What part of the college experience isn’t happening?

2. What is the future for admissions tests?

Because of the cancellation of many SAT and ACT sittings, hundreds of colleges have at least temporarily waived requirements for test scores from applicants. (A list of test-optional colleges is available through the anti-testing organization FairTest.)

“A majority of colleges are test-optional or test-blind,” Jaschik said. “That is a huge change.”

Reporters should make sure to follow up with colleges about their plans for using or requiring test scores once the pandemic eases.

(More story ideas and resources on the impact of COVID on college admissions can be found here. Looking for COVID news coverage from around the country? Take a look at EWA’s Coronavirus and Education Topics page.)

3. Sports and the treatment of athletes

Several schools have required students to study from home, but brought their football players to campus to train and compete. “That raises an interesting Title IX question,” since federal law bans discriminatory treatment of students by gender, Jaschik noted. He added that it’s worth asking “are students who are athletes being treated like real students?”

4. Who decides whether to reopen?

Many colleges are under pressure to reopen. But some have done so without seeking input from faculty, despite most colleges’ commitments to “shared governance,” Jaschik said.

Faculty members are the ones in the classroom, and many are older or have high-risk medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19.

“Why is the faculty involved at some institutions and not others?” he asked.

Reporters should look at who and what is involved in reopening decisions at different institutions, Jaschik suggested.

5. Reopening successes, especially at small schools

Smaller institutions appear to have a better shot at having their students follow directions when it comes to COVID-19, Jaschik said.

“At a small campus where everyone knows everyone, everyone knows what’s happening,” he explained. “They seem to have a better track record of having fewer COVID cases.

Reporters will want to look at all parts of the college before determining whether it’s working or not, he added.

6. The pandemic’s overall impact on admissions and enrollment

While most public flagships continue to attract students, many other types of colleges are seeing declines in enrollment, including high dropout rates among African-Americans.

Most affected are the types of schools that had been struggling to recruit before the pandemic: small, non-elite private colleges and regional universities. Reporters should be asking how the pandemic is affecting those longer-term challenges. “Worry about the private colleges that are not Harvard or Stanford,” Jaschik advised.

Another enrollment story: the decline in the number of high-paying international students. The pandemic made it impossible for many international students to get their visas (thanks to closed consulates) or travel to the U.S. Reporters should look at schools where international students made up at least 8% of the population and see if the school has managed to attract other students to make up for that loss of revenue, or how the loss of tuition revenue is affecting the school.

7. Dislike of online education

In the spring, schools scrambled to transition to online. And many school administrators, assuming the shutdowns would be short-term, failed to use the summer to train faculty and staff to provide top-notch online instruction. So when they couldn’t open back up for in-person instruction this fall, instructors were once again left to wing online instruction without new resources or training. “They’re going online at the very last minute again and students are losing patience with it,” Jaschik said.

Surveys are showing that, overall, neither students nor instructors like online courses, he added. Undergraduates, especially, feel they are missing out on the full college experience.

But real online education, which takes a lot of time to plan and organize, can be effective, and may be the future for graduate programs, Jaschik said.

8. Affirmative action

In 2019, a judge ruled that Harvard could continue to use affirmative action in admissions. (That ruling is now being appealed). And other elite colleges are also facing lawsuits over their handling of race in admissions. “This is very important even if you don’t cover Harvard or elite colleges, because affirmative action affects all kinds of colleges,” Jaschik said.

9. Title IX

If Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, Title IX rules may be rewritten again, Jaschik predicted.

(Under President Barack Obama, the Title IX rules were rewritten to require colleges do more to prevent and investigate sexual assault. The Trump Administration rewrote those rules to give those accused of sexual harassment or assault more legal protections during investigations. For a primer on Title IX issues, check out EWA’s Topics page on sexual assault and Title IX.)

10. College closures

The pandemic is likely to force troubled institutions — especially small private colleges — out of business, Jaschik said.

“They are going to generally be very small private colleges — those with under 1,000 students and no endowments. Many of them have been struggling for a long time. And “they are now running out of time and money,” he said.

11. Race

Race will continue to be a topic of importance for some time, Jaschik said.

“It is, I think, an obligation on all of us to think about race and the colleges we cover,” he said.

Much of the debate around race and higher education won’t be present this year because students have dispersed. Reporters should consider how students feel after the Black Lives Matter movement took off again.

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones discussed in detail the role of race in education reporting at EWA’s 2020 National Seminar.