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Top Higher Ed Stories for the 2018-19 Academic Year

Politics is driving some of the hottest news stories on college campuses.

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Some of the most pressing higher education stories for the next academic year will spring from the intersection of education and politics, predicts Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed.

Jaschik reprised his always-popular rundown of the top higher education story ideas during the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in May.

The main takeaway: From political activism on campuses to a decline in international student enrollment, higher education is already feeling the impact and influence of the Trump administration. And reporters will likely be covering additional ripple effects on their campuses in the coming months.

Here are the top trends Jaschik believes will be making news in the next academic year:

Declining international student enrollment: For the last several decades, U.S. colleges have enjoyed rising demand from highly qualified and wealthy international students. But interest from foreign students started falling in the wake of the 2016 campaign, due, in part, to President Trump’s anti-immigrant statements, Jaschik said.

“Colleges are in a high degree of panic when they see their numbers go down,” because the international students typically pay such high prices that the colleges can use some of their money to subsidize other students or activities, he said.

Students from China are a particular worry for colleges, according to Jaschik. The Trump administration has singled out Chinese students – who are the single largest group of international students in the U.S. – as possibly being involved in espionage. The administration may be exploring limiting their visas or their involvement in certain types of research, Jaschik said.

Reporters seeking enterprise stories can investigate whether international enrollment is down, research the economic and academic impact of any decline and show how schools are responding to the challenge. Some colleges, Jaschik said, are attempting to lure newly hesitant international prospects with non-need-based aid — in other words, discounts off of sticker prices. If successful, such strategies could mean that the numbers of international students remains steady, but the colleges will  collect less revenue from international students than they have in the past.

The role of community colleges: “Trump has said or tweeted that he doesn’t know what community colleges are, that they should become vocational schools and they should change their names to vocational schools” Jaschik noted. Reporters can use this as a spark to examine the role of community colleges, their programs, and their transfer rate to four-year colleges.

“Community colleges don’t take orders from Trump, but don’t think that doesn’t have impact on legislators,” Jaschik said.

Student voting: Historically, a comparatively low percentage of college students vote in midterm elections. Reporters should keep an eye on student political activism and voter registrations ahead of the November elections, Jaschik advised. “If students galvanize and vote, that will be very historic,” he said.

Financial troubles plaguing small private colleges: Several small private colleges have shut down in the last year. A few others are on the verge of shutting down or are trying to survive by merging with other colleges. The schools facing the most financial troubles are private colleges with enrollments under 1,200 students, modest endowments and high admission rates, Jaschik said.

“While many small institutions are healthy, we are in a very challenging period and many of them are going to close in the next year,” he predicted. Reporters might generate news by checking the financial outlooks for the small private colleges they cover.

If a college does close, Jaschik urged reporters to track what happens to its students. In some cases, other colleges swoop in to recruit the unexpectedly adrift students. In other cases, students are abandoned and have to find some other school to accept their credits.

Shortages of computer science faculty: “If you are a Ph.D. in computer science, you have a lot of options besides teaching in college,” Jaschik said. Reporters should investigate how local colleges are handling the situation of high demand for, and limited supply of, computer science teachers. Some colleges, he said, are enlisting faculty from other fields to teach some computer science courses, or holding lotteries for students to get into courses.

Racism and discrimination on campus: Jaschik said there are at least two disturbing trends that reporters should be aware of:

  • Anti Semitism: There is surprisingly little media coverage when anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi posters mysteriously appear on campus, or protesters shout down speakers at Hillel House, Jaschik said. “It’s somewhat shocking,” he said of the examples he cited. “It’s a very tough thing to write about.”
  • Racism: “Race relations are really terrible on college campuses today. That’s not new. They’ve been lousy for some time,” Jaschik said. What’s new is the attention being paid to white people calling the police about the presence of non-white students, such as the recent examples of two Native American students on a college tour at Colorado State and a black Yale graduate student napping in the common area of her dorm. Reporters can talk to campus police about the calls they field, or explore what it does to a campus culture – or to the police – when they are asked to investigate race-based calls. A great follow-up story might look at how campuses are working to change the culture, he suggested.

#MeToo in academe. It started with Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, but #metoo is everywhere, and higher ed is no exception. Reporters should be asking their institutions whether there have been sexual harassment or assault complaints. Even if there have been no complaints, reporters can check on the schools’ sexual harassment policies. The power dynamic on campus – say between graduate students and their advisors –  can make students vulnerable. Reporters should ask how many cases have been filed, how they were handled, whether there were any payouts, and whether the university handles cases in a transparent way, Jaschik advised.

Gifts to colleges with the wrong strings attached: While it’s not uncommon for big donors to get something specific for a gift – a name on a building, say – recent stories about Koch family donations with unusual and intrusive requirements raise red flags, Jaschik said. In some cases, the Koch donations came with demands for inappropriate roles for the foundation, such as selecting faculty members to do certain academic work or dictating who will oversee the work.

“If you are in a community where this money comes in, ask more questions about it,” he said. “Some are rejecting money, some are not.” Any big gift should be scrutinized, he said.

The changing reality of college admissions: waitlists, new “Ivies” and diversity: Jaschik said there are at least three under-covered but important admissions-related trends developing this year.

  • Wait lists: These days, Jaschik said, some schools have longer waiting lists than they have slots for the entire freshman class! Whatever advantage it may give the university to have lots of options down the road, Jaschik argued that it “needlessly hurts” students. When they get on the waiting list, they’re left in limbo instead of biting the bullet about their true options – and starting to get excited about their actual destination. Reporters can ask the colleges they cover about the size of the wait list, whether it’s longer than previous years, and how students on the list are granted admission.
  • “New Public Ivies”: Jaschik asked reporters to stop rewriting the perennial, clichéd story about the low odds of getting into elite private schools like Stanford University. Instead, the more surprising development, he said, is how hard it is getting to gain admission to some public universities formerly considered “safety schools.” For example, the University of California, Davis accepted about two-thirds of its applicants in 2000. In 2017, the rate had declined to 44 percent. UC Irvine accepted about 60 percent of its applicants in 2000. In 2017, it accepted only 37 percent. Reporters can check the historical admission rates at their schools using the College Navigator tool developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, or compare many schools’ rates by downloading data from the U.S. Department of Education’s free IPEDS site. (EWA has created a free 10-minute tutorial on how to download data from IPEDS.) For the most current year, however, reporters will need to check with the colleges. Among the questions to ask about changes in admissions rates at public colleges: how, and how heavily, the institution recruits for higher-paying out-of-state prospects, and whether the state is creating enough seats for in-state students.
  • New diversity efforts: Fresh stories can be generated by examining colleges’ efforts to change admissions and recruiting strategies to increase all kinds of diversity, Jaschik believes.
    • Undermatching: While almost all colleges give lip service to the idea of diversity, it’s important for reporters to check colleges’ actions against their rhetoric. Recent research that shows leading colleges send more admissions officers to high schools with students that are white and wealthy than they do to low-income schools, for example. (Read about the research and accompanying database here.) “The phenomenon of undermatching is very much with us,” Jaschik said. “Undermatching” is a term used to describe a situation in which a student attends a college for which they are overqualified. Many low-income students “undermatch” because schools offer more financial aid to students at the top of the applicant pool, or because the students care less about academic standards than a school’s proximity to family,  or because the students were not aware they were qualified for more competitive colleges. Reporters can check the researchers’ database for where their schools recruit. They can also try searching local high schools’ websites for information on recruiting events to compare who recruits how much at wealthy and low-income high schools.
    • Conservatives: After the 2016 election, many college administrators realized that their institutions were “a blue dot in a sea of red,” Jaschik said. That has led some colleges to start actively recruiting conservative and rural students. A recent Gallup survey, he said, found that about nine percent of colleges reported efforts to recruit more conservative students and more than 30 percent were working to recruit more rural students. “There is an awareness that (rural students) may not have felt welcome,” he said.

Liberal arts under siege. Financial pressures have put liberal arts majors in the crosshairs, especially at regional public institutions. Reporters should ask what it means to deny students in some locations access to liberal arts majors, and whether it narrows the mission of the institutions.

New focus on student success: In the past, some colleges viewed high dropout rates as evidence that they had high standards. Today, thanks to the growing importance of having a credential in the job market, many students and parents are steering away from colleges with high dropout rates. So, administrators are working hard to raise measures such as graduation rates, alumni employment and student loan repayment rates.

“We’re seeing a lot of experimentation that is actually moving the needle,” Jaschik said. Reporters should look at their colleges’ outcomes measures, many of which are freely available in the vast College Scorecard database, and find out how schools are working to improve their numbers.