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Top 10 Higher Education Story Ideas for 2019-20

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik says admissions, free speech and rising graduation rates will make headlines.

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While the hottest higher education story of early 2019 involved celebrities trying to bribe their kids’ way into elite colleges,  many other important stories are likely to make news in the 2019-20 academic year, according to Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed.

The veteran higher education journalist and editor listed the 10 topics he thinks every higher education reporter should be ready to cover in the coming months.

There’s still plenty of opportunity to find fresh angles on the much-covered “Varsity Blues” scandal, he told a room jam-packed with journalists at the 2019 Education Writers Association National Seminar held in Baltimore.

The scandal exposed the ability for athletes and the children of alumni (sometimes called “legacies”)  to play by a different set of admission rules. “I worry that all the stories about Aunt Becky ignore the fact that colleges favor athletes over non-athletes all the time,” Jaschik said. “This deserves many more stories.”

Jaschik encouraged reporters to use the scandal to dig into “the extreme advantages of wealth, most of it, white wealth.” (Read an in-depth exploration of covering the implications of the Varsity Blues scandal.)

But he said there are at least nine other important higher education story ideas that will attract readers’ interest in the 2019-20 academic year.

2) More students are graduating college

The latest overall six-year college graduation rate hit 58.3 percent for freshmen who started in 2012, up 1.5 percentage points from the previous year and up 5.5 percentage points over the previous three years, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.

But those rates are still lower than most would like. And there remain troubling equity gaps. The NSC reported that fewer than 41 percent of African American males who started at four-year colleges earned bachelors’ degrees within six years. Meanwhile, more than 52 percent of African American females and 67 percent of white males graduate within that time.

“What is going on up on your campuses?” Jaschik asked, suggesting reporters explore what local colleges are doing to help more students graduate.

3) More course guidance

A growing number of schools, concerned that students’ poor course choices are leading them to drop out, are creating “guided pathways” to steer students into the courses they need to fulfill major and graduation requirements. One community college in Sacramento is even picking courses for students, the theory being that left to their own devices, students are doing a lousy job, Jaschik noted.

4) Troubles for non-flagship state universities

Many regional public colleges are in financial trouble, Jaschik said.

Unlike flagships that can draw on prestige, research dollars and alumni donations, regional campuses are suffering from shrinking enrollment and diminished state support. Indicators of troubles include declining enrollment or the elimination of departments, he said.

5) Declining Chinese enrollment

For decades, students from foreign countries, especially China, have been a source of money and students for American higher education. But the number of international students getting F-class visas to study in the U.S. has plunged from 678,000 a year in 2015 to just 390,000 in 2018, according to the State Department. And much of the decline is due to a dramatic falloff in Chinese students.

The State Department reported that the U.S. issued just 101,000 F visas to students from mainland China in 2018, down from 279,000 in 2015. Jaschik said there are a variety of reasons for the decline, including tougher visa rules, some politicians’ anti-immigrant statements, and concerns — not necessarily substantiated — over espionage

“If all Chinese students left tomorrow, many universities would shut down selected programs,” Jaschik said. One area Jaschik suggested was ripe for investigation: How much of the opposition to Chinese students is due to racism? Another story idea: Reporters can try to find out how much university leaders monitor exactly what Chinese nationals at their institutions are doing, and whom they are interacting with.

6) Debates on free speech

Protesters continue to try to block speakers whom they find offensive, and many campuses, such as Williams College, are in the midst of debates over what “free speech” is and how to protect it.

In addition, President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order nominally protecting free speech on campus. The order doesn’t create any new rights. But it raises the possibility that campuses could lose federal research or other grants if they block certain speakers.

Specifically, the order tells several federal departments to “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”

7) The spread of “test-optional” admissions

The list of colleges that no longer require applicants to provide SAT or ACT scores has continued to grow. Among the most recent joiners of the test-optional movement: Bucknell University and the University of San Francisco. Even the California State University system is looking at this issue, Jaschik noted.

Free data on colleges’ application requirements can be downloaded from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS. (EWA has created a quick video tutorial on how to use the IPEDS database.) A list of test-optional colleges is also available  from the anti-testing organization FairTest.

8) Rising intolerance and anti-Semitism

Jaschik said he sees a rise in intolerance on college campuses. He noted that there continue to be incidents in which some college students or staff do racist or insensitive things, such as when white people appear in public wearing black face. The specter of anti-Semitism is also raised in incidents such as the recent refusal of some University of Michigan professors to write letters of recommendation for students applying to study abroad programs in Israel.

It is one thing to support a boycott of Israel, and another to say, “I will not help a student who wants to go to Israel,” Jaschik said. Jaschik suggested reporters query the colleges they cover on their policies about such incidents.

9) Threats facing small colleges

Some small colleges, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are struggling to find enough paying students to stay afloat. One group that seems especially vulnerable: private colleges in New England with enrollments under 1,000 students, Jaschik said. (More sources and tips on the implications of changing demographics for colleges can be found here.)

Indicators that a college is struggling financially include:

  • Rising admission rates – Reporters can obtain data on how many students each college claims apply and are admitted from IPEDS. (Note: that data is not audited for accuracy.)
  • “Heightened Cash Monitoring” – If the U.S. Department of Education, which does review things like colleges’ financial aid systems, has concerns about a school’s finances, it puts the school on its “heightened cash monitoring” list.

Beyond covering financial troubles and their causes, Jaschik suggested reporters also look at the troubles’ effects on students and employees.

10) Disputes over college admissions

Harvard University is battling a lawsuit which alleges that the university has discriminated against Asian Americans during the admissions process.

(As of mid-May 2019, the federal court had not yet issued a decision in the Harvard case.)

Jaschik said that the case, although focused on one comparatively small, elite college, has big implications. “If Harvard loses, every higher education association will say don’t worry, ‘It is just Harvard,’” he predicted.

But Jaschik believes the ripple effects will be widespread and could affect the many other colleges that also give admissions preferences to athletes and the children of alumni.

Jaschik also encouraged local reporters to pursue the unique stories they see at their local campuses, and noted how strong the finalists were for the 2019 National Awards for Education Reporting. ”We at Inside Higher Ed get tons of ideas every day from the work you are doing. You hear journalism is dying, it’s not judging by the strong pieces.”