From COVID-19 relief funding to massive endowments, money – which institutions have it, which don’t and how it is spent – will be key themes in higher education stories over the next year.
That’s the prediction Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik gave during his session on “The Top 10 Higher Education Stories You’ll Be Covering This Year” at the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar in October.
Most urgent will be what happens with the reconciliation bill pending in Congress and how much goes to higher education. Will Pell Grants be doubled, and if so, over what time period? A proposal for free community college was already cut.
“Everything is on the chopping block,” Jaschik said.
The bill creates an “awkward political situation,” he noted. That’s because most of the public is in favor of President Biden’s higher education proposals, but if you live in a Republican area, your member of Congress or senator most likely opposes them. It’s worth asking your local politicians, Jaschik said, how your district would benefit if the proposals pass, and why those politicians are against them.
Jaschik also shared other story ideas for the rest of this year and beyond. Here are the highlights:
Money-Related Story Ideas
Money, those with it and those short of it, will play a major role in higher education, so Jaschik advised reporters to take note of these issues:
- COVID-19 relief funds: What will colleges and universities do when COVID-19 relief money runs out? How have your local institutions spent that funding? From Jaschik’s perspective, most are using their relief money appropriately – half has to be spent on students – but it’s worth checking this out.
- College endowments: A flip side to the lack of money story is that some colleges and universities have had enormous returns on their endowments: Some examples are Duke University, reporting a 56% return on its endowment; Washington University in Missouri, 65%; Bowdoin College in Maine, 57% ; and University of Minnesota, 49%.The first step is finding the latest returns on your college’s endowment; most, especially if they have done well, are eager to tout the information publicly on their website and through press releases. The National Association of College and University Business Offices (NACUBO) also has information about endowments on its website.How colleges and universities will spend those large endowments and who makes such decisions are major questions, Jaschik said.He also noted that institutions are relatively free to spend their endowments as they wish. They could make some or most programs free, for example, or pay faculty better. The question is, “Can they just continue to say they’ll be cautious?” he asked.
- Economic disparities: The story of the next year, now more than ever, is about the haves and have-nots. Like so many things, the pandemic has only exacerbated this divide. While the past year saw the growth of those robust endowments for already wealthy colleges, community colleges are suffering. Following some years of rising enrollment, they now have lost students who couldn’t attend classes during the pandemic and often faced barriers to remote learning. Many community college students didn’t have access to good Wi-Fi or a quiet place to study, Jaschik said.And although community college enrollment is often down during good economic times, Jaschik said he sees the latest drop as more than economy-related. Jaschik said a few community colleges reported slight increases in enrollment over the previous year. In October, the National Student Clearinghouse reported continuing declines in undergraduate enrollment, falling by 3.2% since fall 2020.Jaschik noted that it’s important to remember that state funding for community colleges is enrollment based, so when the student population goes down, the money shrinks.
People, Policies and Institutions to Cover
Other institutions, people or policies may face a tough road ahead in the coming year:
- Small private liberal arts colleges and regional public colleges: Such small colleges often aren’t well-known. They’re looking for ways to survive, which often involves mergers. For example, Mills College just merged with Northeastern University. There will no doubt be more such alliances down the road.
- Faculty: In general, faculty power has been eroded during the past 18 months, with layoffs and battles over whether professors have to return to campus. “Those created real dynamics of power,” Jaschik said, and members of faculty, for the most part, weren’t the winners in the power struggles.
- Affirmative Action: The Supreme Court will shortly decide whether to take up the case brought by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University in an effort to end its racial affirmative action policy. The make-up of the Court has shifted since the last time such a case was decided, with three new conservative members. And, Jaschik stressed, this case matters, whether or not you cover elite institutions. “Hundreds of colleges will be scrutinized in how they aid,” he said. “For example, any college that has a summer program for minority women could get in trouble.”
Why Geography Matters in Reporting
Reporters should keep a close eye on the split between universities – those largely in the South versus those in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest – and how their locations influence their handling of COVID-19.
Many higher education institutions in the South don’t require – and some governors are actively against – mask mandates or vaccinations. In other states, colleges and governors are strong supporters of such policies.
“Higher ed depends on collaboration,” Jaschik said, but graduate students and faculty members may choose not to travel to places where they feel their health is endangered.
These public policy decisions could also affect where students choose to apply and where professors decide to work.
“It’s a really big story,” Jaschik predicted.