Higher Examination  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 2003

Higher Examination   

Once treated with reverence, universities and colleges are now receiving more skeptical and probing coverage. But the economic downturn has prompted some news organizations to scale back their commitment to the beat.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

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Patrick Healy's story about "Harvard's dirty little secret" sprang, like so many exposés, from a routine daily assignment, the university's spring commencement.

Struck by the parade of cum laudes and magnas and summas, the Boston Globe reporter did some quick calculations and came up with a figure that shocked him. More than 90 percent of the Harvard class was graduating with honors.

The rate seemed high to Healy, and also to his editor. Next thing you know, Healy was burying himself in the Harvard archives, digging up graduation and honors data, and documenting how much higher Harvard's honors rate was (91 percent) than schools such as Yale (51 percent) and Princeton (44 percent).

Eventually, Healy would write:

Since the Vietnam era, rampant grade inflation has made [Harvard's] top prize for students — graduating with honors — virtually meaningless....

While the world regards these students as the best of the best of America's 13 million undergraduates, Harvard honors has actually become the laughingstock of the Ivy League.

The other Ivies see Harvard as the Lake Wobegon of higher education, where all the students, being above average, can take honors for granted. It takes just a B-minus average in the major subject to earn cum laude — no sweat at a school where 51 percent of the grades last year were A's and A-minuses.

Healy's two-part series won the most recent grand prize from the Education Writers Association and helped make him a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for beat coverage.

It was rare recognition for someone on the perennially low-lit higher-ed beat, a beat that relatively few papers pursue full time and many do without entirely. But Healy's work illustrates a trend in both society at large and in journalism. Higher education is undergoing higher examination.

In an age of accountability, as tuition surges and consumers squeal, colleges have begun sliding off the pedestals they once occupied as privileged, seldom-challenged local shrines.

"The reverent tone that came with covering higher education is passing," Healy says. Today's reporters are "adding a broader dimension of aggressive, critical coverage" to the tradition of "gee-whiz stories on some interesting piece of research or a student protest."

Examples are easy to find: Charlotte Observer coverage of how corporate grants raise questions about the neutrality of college research, a Sacramento Bee investigation into sex crimes on campus, a Houston Chronicle crusade to uncover how university investment funds are run.

The new skepticism is a key trend identified in an AJR assessment of higher-education coverage across the country. But it isn't universal, and it is somewhat offset by a second finding — a tendency of newspapers to neglect the higher-education beat, even more than usual, during rough times.

As newsroom resources shrink, even large papers may leave higher-ed jobs vacant or ask reporters to double up by also covering grade schools (known in the lingo as K-12 reporting).

At the Miami Herald, for example, the higher-ed slot stayed vacant for most of 2002, after the beat reporter left and wasn't replaced. "We were trying to cope with some cutbacks," says Mark Seibel, the Herald's managing editor for news. "The position was vacant so we just left it vacant. We're pretty much at the beck and call of people in the universities who call and alert us to something because we don't have anybody who works the beat."

These two trends highlighted our findings: a movement toward tougher scrutiny, especially of college finances, and some downturn-driven, perhaps temporary cutbacks in staffing. We also found, in interviews with reporters, editors and higher-education experts, some shifts in what topics are being covered (student and campus life stories are very popular at the moment), many criticisms (community colleges get precious little coverage, for example, though they enroll a huge percentage of today's students), and suggestions for improvement (more reporters, more variety, more depth).

Overall, the consensus rang pretty clearly. Higher-education coverage has improved and toughened up, but it could and should be better.

Scott Jaschik, editor of the respected and widely read Chronicle of Higher Education, often starts his day by surfing the Web and scanning clip services to develop a broad feel for campus coverage.

"The biggest trend, I think, is to cover higher education as a consumer topic," Jaschik says. "The questions are, 'Where is my kid going to get into college?' 'How am I going to pay for it?' and 'Is my kid going to get a job afterward?' "

Like others, Jaschik perceives a more critical edge. "There's a willingness to ask questions — to say, 'Why do you do what you do?' The ivory tower is, in many respects, gone."

No one suggests that the news media have overnight hurled themselves into snarling attack mode. It's just that they're less likely to treat colleges as sacred cows or exotic wonderlands.

Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, believes that "the state of investigation of higher education has been improving."

Houston points to investigations of campus sports (including a 2000 Pulitzer-winner by George Dohrmann of the St. Paul Pioneer Press — see "Body Slam," May 1999), crime, finance, "research entanglements," even parking tickets.

"I'm hearing more concern and irritation and frustration at the public record attitude of universities," Houston says. "That is usually a strong indicator of what is going on."

But Houston also points out that colleges often resist surrendering records and that "journalists only have a limited amount of time. If somebody puts up a reasonably good fight, it is easy to slide over to the next story."

One journalist who didn't slide to the next story was the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe — who specializes in politics, not higher education — had been writing about state contracts for several years when he became interested in University of Texas investments.

After a series of freedom of information battles, Ratcliffe wrote a story last September that began:

As financial markets slide, the people charged with managing a trust fund that benefits Texas' largest state universities are hiding the performance of some of the fund's highest-risk investments....

Public disclosure and accountability are at issue because [the] investments benefit publicly supported universities.

Within a month, the state's attorney general ordered the release of the records Ratcliffe sought.

What motivated Ratcliffe to persevere? "If it's public money they're investing, they should be held accountable for it," he contends. "You can't be taking what is essentially money that belongs to everybody in the state and investing it and not having some scrutiny of it."

In California, Louise Knott Ahern of the Riverside Press-Enterprise found irony in the fact that the local university's business school was having financial problems that required layoffs and potentially years of cost-cutting:

UC Riverside's graduate business school is getting a crash course in its own money management.

[It] is paying down a $2.5 million deficit in state money....

"No one was minding the shop.... There was a budget during that time, but no one was paying attention to it really closely," said [a school financial officer].

The Press-Enterprise takes education coverage seriously. According to Laura Wingard, assistant managing editor for metro news, of about 70 metro reporters at the paper, eight cover education full time and five others follow school districts or community colleges in their coverage areas. Ahern, the only full-time higher-ed reporter in the group, sees a more critical era emerging. "I think we will see harder coverage of schools and what they spend their money on," she says. "People have become more and more critical of the costs."

According to the College Board organization, costs are certainly a noteworthy factor. It reported that this school year tuition and fees at public universities rose nearly 10 percent. Over the past 10 years, college costs jumped 38 percent. And, before that, "during the 1980s, the cost of attending college rose over three times as fast as median income." Public colleges, especially, have been at the mercy of declining state support, what the College Board calls "the pattern of state governments restricting the growth in appropriations when the economy slows."

Of course, not all scrutiny involves finances. Campus crime, too, gets increasing attention. A tough, controversial Sacramento Bee report, headlined "UC keeps sex crimes in shadows," concluded that many crimes aren't made public and included a congressman's sound bite that couldn't have been better if it came from rent-a-quote:

A five-month Bee investigation...found that reports of rapes and sexual assaults at University of California campuses are seldom made public each year....

"Universities want you to think their campuses are like mom and apple pie — but students are getting raped, mugged and shot and we don't know about it," said U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita.

In a Charlotte Observer series, reporter Michelle Crouch examined an increasingly explored topic, coziness between universities and their sources of money:

When Wake Forest University professor Joel Berry needs something for his research, he doesn't go to his department head or ask the university.

He makes cold calls.

"You basically have to take off your scientist's hat, put on your salesman's hat, and put on a dog and pony show," says Berry....

Big money is pouring into university laboratories in the Carolinas and across the country, and it's paying for research that could change lives. But it's also sparking concerns that universities could lose their cherished reputations as hubs of pure, unbiased research.

While many stories have a critical tone, others scrutinize campuses in a bigger-picture way.

Veteran higher-ed reporter Mary Jane Smetanka of Minneapolis' Star Tribune produced a mammoth look at the University of Minnesota in a Sunday package that started on page one and jumped to two full pages inside. Her story reported that the school, marking its 150th year, was "at a crossroads," a point when it may no longer be able to afford its own ambitions.

Smetanka, who has covered higher ed for the past six years, agrees that financial issues have aroused parents, taxpayers and educators, and now the press. "As these questions about funding and tuition come up, people want to know where the money is going, how you are spending it, how you are serving us," she says. "These are all going to become bigger questions. I think maybe there is a tendency to look harder, and I think we should."

Making a similar point, Sharon Jayson, a higher-ed reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, sums it up this way: "Higher education is big bucks. There's a lot of money invested. That has made people more aware of what's at stake."

But, Jayson adds, while budgets and tuition may drive much of today's coverage, other reasons apply, too. For example, she cites enrollment increases and rising expectations about the value of college degrees. "There is greater recognition among the general public that a college education in some form is really needed. So there is a lot of interest in higher education."

Several sources point out that the more probing tone also has roots beyond the realm of education.

Holly Stepp (no relation to the author), a longtime higher-ed reporter who is now education editor at the State in Columbia, South Carolina, says campuses are caught up in today's quest for more accountability.

"In K-12, if a kid doesn't learn, you blame the schools," she says. "In college, if a kid doesn't learn, it's been the student's fault. If there is a trend we will see five, six, seven years from now, it will be asking, 'What kind of learning goes on at universities, particularly as states try to hold their universities accountable?' "

(Stepp, somewhat tongue in cheek, floats a more down-to-earth rationale for press preoccupation with dollars and cents: "You have a lot of middle-class editors who want to send their kids to Yale, and they see what it costs, and they get a little freaked out about it.")

Tim McDonough, director of public affairs for the American Council on Education, sees more skepticism almost everywhere, not just in education. "I think the cost of college has a lot to do with it," McDonough says, "but I don't know of any organization in American life now that isn't subject to more scrutiny by the press, whether it's a hospital, the United Way, the church or higher education."

Finally, many argue that even if higher-ed coverage is growing stouter, it still isn't tough enough.

"I wish there were more coverage of higher education and more discerning coverage, but I don't see it increasing," says Gene I. Maeroff, a longtime New York Times education correspondent who now directs the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University.

"To a certain extent, colleges and universities in this country are getting a free ride. They deserve, at a minimum, the same scrutiny we are willing to give K-12 education."

The Dallas Morning News touts education prominently on its Web site and links to a roster of its education writers. One day recently, the link listed 22 reporters and their coverage areas. Twenty-one were covering K-12 at least part time, and one was designated for higher education.

How does the paper decide on that ratio? "It's very simple," says Mike Drago, the Morning News assistant metro editor in charge of education coverage. "K-12 public education touches the lives of more of our readers."

Drago notes that other Morning News reporters cover higher-education stories from time to time and that several reporters keep track part time of nearby colleges. But it seems universally true that grade schools attract far more coverage than higher ed.

Of 523 reporters who belonged to the national Education Writers Association late last year, 45 listed themselves as full time on higher education, according to EWA Executive Director Lisa Walker. Many others give occasional attention to campus coverage. The EWA runs a listserv devoted to higher education, and it recently had 115 participants, a better indicator, Walker says, of the proportion of writers with some higher-ed responsibilities. While no hard statistics are available, Walker has the sense that the number of higher-ed correspondents has dropped during the economic downturn.

Most big papers have full-time higher-ed beats, but small and midsize papers typically do not. "It's rare to find a full-time higher-education reporter at most papers," says Holly Stepp of the State, "unless they have a huge university in their backyard. It is more common to have a K-12 reporter whose job is to put out the fires in higher education when needed."

Robert Frahm has covered education since 1971, including more than 18 years at the Hartford Courant. For four years he covered higher education exclusively, but then the Courant reduced its education staff from four to two, Frahm says. Now he spends about 60 percent of his time on K-12 stories and the rest on higher ed.

He understands the paper's decisions but laments the result. "My own belief is that we are spread too thin," Frahm says. "We are giving all of education short shrift. We miss some stories that I think we ought to be doing, but there just aren't enough people in the newsroom.

"K-12 has a larger audience and it does affect more people. Higher education is still a choice in this country. It's voluntary. There are more people who are connected directly through their children or their taxes to elementary and secondary schools than there are to colleges."

At the Miami Herald, which went without a full-time higher-ed writer most of last year, Managing Editor Seibel echoes the ambivalence. Seibel, a one-time education reporter himself, says K-12 coverage is more urgent but colleges need attention, too. "We made a conscious decision that K-12 affected more people," Seibel says. "So we continued to cover K-12 more so than higher education because we thought we could get by. But an awful lot of people are involved in it as students or parents or employees. To not cover it is to overlook a huge aspect of the community."

An oft-cited irony, of course, is that nearly all papers manage to find resources for a certain kind of higher-ed coverage: sports. The Miami Herald, for example, has five reporters covering college athletics. Seibel says he is looking for someone for the one higher-ed news slot and hopes to fill it this year.

Journalists also say that the public isn't exactly flooding the phones and jamming the e-mail to demand higher-education stories.

Mike Drago, the Dallas education editor, confesses, "I don't sense any clamoring for more higher-education coverage."

The Star Tribune's Mary Jane Smetanka explains it this way: "Higher education can seem much more distant. Unless you have kids in college, it can seem more disconnected from your life."

Many journalists felt they were nearing a breakthrough in public interest when newspaper downsizing cut resources over the past few years. The EWA's Lisa Walker says her sense is that higher-education coverage had been building momentum until recent cuts throttled it back.

Mary Beth Marklein, who has covered higher education for USA Today since 1997, sees interest growing but not yet at a peak. "For better or worse," she says, "higher education is becoming a consumer good. I think parents want to know what's going on, especially when they're paying all that money." Still, she adds, "It is viewed as a priority here, but it is not a page-one story."

One of the few broadcast journalists specializing in education is Claudio Sanchez, national education correspondent for National Public Radio. Sanchez, who has covered the subject since 1989, agrees that "higher education too often is more of an afterthought."

"Part of the reason," Sanchez says, "is that everybody assumes things are generally OK, even with the concerns about costs." Americans are proud of the range and quality of their higher-ed system and the "big service" it provides, Sanchez feels. The "level of urgency about educational reform" directs itself far more at elementary and secondary schools than colleges.

Kit Lively, education editor at the Charlotte Observer, has written or edited education stories since 1984, including for nine years at the Chronicle of Higher Education before joining the Observer in 2001. While she knows the reasons for heavy K-12 coverage, she also sees the rising economic and cultural impact of colleges. Although relatively few papers staff higher education full time at the moment, Lively argues, "I think it is a more important beat than that. It should get better coverage."

As editor of the Associated Press' national reporting team, John Affleck supervises the wire service's single national higher-education reporter. He also informally monitors the supply and demand of campus coverage in general.

Affleck divides it into two categories: first, "perennial issues" such as costs and admissions and, second, "issues of campus life."

Affleck's soundings match well with issues that percolated through the Education Writers' higher-ed listserv last year. Library cafés and coffee shops drew a lot of attention. Other big topics included costs, presidency searches, capital campaigns, effects of smaller classes, marketing issues, faculty and graduate advisers in residence halls, and threats to academic freedom.

Reporters repeatedly cite the need to blanket the usual issues, including applications, costs and "the rhythm of the school year," from fall move-ins to spring commencements.

"Two stories in particular — admissions and cost — are of huge interest to many, many readers," says Hartford's Frahm. "Every time I do a story about the cost of college, my phone rings the next day and people want to know more."

The Star Tribune's Smetanka agrees. "How are people going to pay for college? How are we going to pay as taxpayers, as parents and as states? This could be a beat in itself."

Tim McDonough, whose American Council on Education lobbying group represents some 1,800 colleges, thinks that these "old saws...are irresistible" to reporters, and more and more to readers. "I think people have started to pay attention to higher education," says McDonough. "It is increasingly viewed as a kitchen table issue."

As an example of the appetite for detail about college processes, several reporters mentioned New York Times' Jacques Steinberg's extraordinary backstage look at the Wesleyan College admissions process. Titled "Gatekeepers," it won first prize in the Education Writers' series category and has been expanded into a book.

Beyond the traditional topics, reporters also search for what is trendy about student and campus life. High-profile topics, according to the AP's Affleck, include September 11-related issues and changing student lifestyles.

As an example of September 11's influence, Affleck cites coverage of terrorism's impact on student travel abroad and on classroom study of Islam.

As for student lifestyles — or, as Affleck puts it, "What is this generation of college students dealing with on campus? What is their life like?" — he mentions stories on parent orientation, upscale dorms and athletic facilities, and those coffeehouses in libraries.

"We need to do more of those kinds of stories," Smetanka believes. As an example, she cites the way young people change after their first semester away at school.

The Dallas Morning News' Linda K. Wertheimer produced a yearlong series on a student's first year. "The freshman year of college is like a bridge to adulthood," the paper said in introducing the series, "a journey of hopes, heartbreaks and successes." Wertheimer offered some dramatic scenes illustrating the "freshman-year jitters" for student Netreia McNulty:

Around her, students shouted out chemical formulas as the professor quizzed the class. Netreia sat silently.

At Madison High School, she knew most of the answers. She was a star....

[Earlier] she held a piece of paper as if it were on fire. It was a list of required courses for engineering majors....

"Looking at it, I'm terrified. There's so much stuff, math, science. There are people here who are geniuses," she said. "I'm just an average student."

Articles about upscale campus life abound. They're the kind of detail-rich tales that lure reporters like grad students to a cheap buffet.

The Boston Globe's Mary Leonard wrote of the numerous perks available to today's students:

They may be called the Spartans of Michigan State University, but students lucky enough to live in Shaw Hall can enjoy two therapeutic bubble-jet tubs as they watch television in one of the dorm's larger bathrooms....

Indeed, Spartan doesn't describe student life on most campuses. Once the tearful goodbyes are over and the family minivan has pulled away, there are enough sushi stations, big-screen televisions, personal trainers, cable channels in the dorm room, cybercafes, and videos available in the library to distract and entertain even those freshmen who came to college to study.

Reporting on higher education is one of those classic half-empty, half-full topics — it's getting better, but it's still not where it should be. As colleges become ever-mightier economic and cultural forces, readers deserve more and better coverage.

To that end, the Education Writers Association this past fall launched a project "to help elevate the higher-education beat." Step one is to survey news organizations about how they cover higher ed, how they want to cover it and where the biggest obstacles lie.

"We have a hunch that everybody has a long to-do list of those bigger topics, but what they end up covering are the tuition increases and the kid who gets stabbed and the meningitis outbreak, those stories that force themselves into the paper," says Tom Linthicum, a veteran reporter and editor helping coordinate the EWA project.

In early survey results, reporters frequently expressed frustration about not having enough time or specialized knowledge to provide in-depth coverage. "My sense in looking at the survey is that we are covering higher education like we cover a lot of things — responding to it, rather than initiating," says Dorothy Linthicum, an education consultant working with the EWA (and Tom's wife).

The group plans to take information from its survey and design at least two seminars this year where higher-ed reporters can share knowledge and resources.

Clearly more reporters and more time also would help. But even without added staffing, campus coverage can probably be nudged in some interesting directions. Topping the list of undercovered stories, reporters say, are, 1., even more on what student life is really like; 2., what goes on inside classrooms and research labs; and 3., what happens at non-elite, non-East Coast institutions, especially community colleges.

Despite the trend toward stories about campus life, many feel far more depth and range are needed. Columbia's Holly Stepp calls for "a greater focus on what student lives are like at college — whether that be the social aspects or the classroom aspects. A lot of parents send their students off and don't hear much."

"It gets covered around the sensational edges — crime, drugs, drinking," says Gene Maeroff of the Hechinger Institute. "Student life is a lot more complicated than that."

Potential topics spill out glibly: the life of commuter students, the influence of online curriculums, how colleges are helping new students adjust. "We need to be willing to write less about the meetings and more about people and things that go on on campus," urges Minneapolis' Smetanka. "You can do stories about research, students, events.... It's an incredibly rich place you can mine for stories."

A void, nearly everyone agrees, is covering what colleges actually teach. "What the students really do when they are in the classroom — you see remarkably little on that," observes Scott Jaschik, Chronicle of Higher Education editor.

Maeroff agrees. "I have always been dismayed at the extent to which so much attention is going to issues surrounding tuition, admissions and ratings," he says. "These three areas tend to get undue coverage. It would be really helpful to see higher-education reporters think more in terms of teaching and learning."

But, as Austin's Sharon Jayson points out, that kind of reporting takes time that besieged beat writers often lack. "I think people would be interested, but those are the kinds of things that don't get covered because of breaking news," she says.

Another widespread complaint is that there is too little coverage of non-elite schools. "The great untold story of higher education is community colleges," says NPR's Sanchez. "It's a school for deadbeats — that's the perception — the place where students who can't make it in a four-year system have to go. And yet you look around and you see great value there. But those stories have little traction for some reason because everybody is hypnotized by the elite and the Ivy League."

McDonough of the American Council on Education cites federal figures showing that 36 percent of the 15.5 million students in postsecondary schools are at community colleges. And 56 percent of students are over the age of 22.

"If reporters bring to their stories their own ideas about what it's like to be in college, " McDonough says, "they're probably overlooking some huge demographic changes: more older students, more commuter or part-time students, and more students in community colleges."

For example, the Chronicle's Jaschik adds, reporters may now be overlooking a developing story, as budget cutbacks drive even some community colleges to turn away students, something "unthinkable in the community college tradition."

Stepp, who wrote an EWA manual on covering higher education, says "the key to keeping higher-education coverage relevant and engaging is to think of the big picture.... If you keep the 'so what?' in mind, you will do two things: Demystify the work of higher education and explain its impact on your readers."

Asked for his recommendation, Jaschik, who has spent 17 years at the Chronicle of Higher Education including three years as its editor, ticked off these:

* pay attention to all institutions, not just the biggest
* pay attention to context
* go to campuses and talk to students and faculty members.

"Higher education is a mix," Jaschik says. "You have the latest student silliness, and you have the world of great ideas. That's what makes it interesting."

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