Public resentment of colleges is on the rise — more aggressive and thoughtful coverage can help

On a Tuesday this spring, a crazy story was suddenly everywhere: federal prosecutors had charged dozens of people in an elaborate admissions bribery scheme. No wonder the Varsity Blues story spread so quickly. Television stars, rich parents, SAT cheating, prestigious universities. The memes materialized immediately. The book deals were announced in days. It will go down as the biggest higher-ed story of the year.

By comparison, the poll released last fall by Gallup was a blip of a headline. But it speaks to more far-reaching challenges than fake water polo players and former sitcom stars. Here’s what Gallup found: less than half the country now has strong confidence in the nation’s colleges. In fact, no other institution declined as much in the previous three years. Republican views on higher education, in particular, have soured sharply.

College is becoming more of a private good than a public one. In most of the country, more than half of public institutions’ revenue comes from students and families, not states. Americans see tuition going up at their local college, wonder how they’ll be able to pay, and whether it will be worth it. Admissions scandals deepen the disillusionment, fueling perceptions of colleges as elitist, beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

So how do we restore that confidence? We believe reporting — on the ground, in states and cities — can help. The problem, of course, is that local journalism is in crisis.

Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom jobs of all types fell 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Newspapers, the mainstays of local coverage, saw the bottom fall out — down 45 percent in just nine years.

That leaves harmful gaps. No reporters attending the city council meeting. No one sitting in the courtroom. No one watching the powerful local company.

And no one keeping their eye on the local university. As former top editors at the leading higher-ed trade publication, we saw that diminishment firsthand.

Colleges and universities spend $500 billion a year. They employ four million people. They educate 20 million students. At their best, they create new knowledge, spur economic development, and build a ladder for social mobility. But in far too many communities, no reporter is there to cover them.

And that’s understandable. Put yourself in the city editor’s shoes. As her reporting staff shrinks, the smaller newsroom has just one person dedicated to education, and that reporter must be focused on K-12 education. A dedicated higher-education reporter will always be the second education journalist on your team. At a time when news budgets are evaporating, can you really afford that? Now, in plenty of major American cities — places like Dallas, Denver, and Memphis — no local reporter focuses primarily on higher education.

Education reporters everywhere are feeling the pinch. In a 2016 survey by the Education Writers Association, two out of three education journalists said that covering so many aspects of the beat left them little time for in-depth work. Nearly half said their colleagues didn’t have the subject matter expertise to help them. When so little of a reporter’s time is dedicated to higher education, stories about college are often event-driven, rather than the kind of comprehensive reporting that gets at the big picture. The sustained attention necessary for investigating these institutions is hard to come by.

Given this lack of coverage, what do most Americans hear and read about college? Mostly stories from a national perspective: the admissions bribery scandals, the mountains of student-loan debt, and the lucrative contracts for football coaches. These stories reveal important things about privilege, corruption, and the priorities of those in charge. But there is far more that people should know about this vast and vital industry.

College is a local story, shaped by state policies and designed to serve citizens and communities. Local readers should know about how that fancy new dorm is exacerbating class divides at their state flagship, about how the private college in their city wants to create its own police force, or how shifts in their state’s lottery-funded scholarship program are favoring wealthier students. College isn’t just about admissions and it’s definitely not just about the Ivy League.

This skewed coverage feeds the resentment many Americans have toward higher education. Three-quarters of Republicans say higher education is “going in the wrong direction,” according to a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center. A focus on elite colleges and stories like the admissions scandal make it easier for citizens to distrust the entire enterprise.

We believe more thoughtful, aggressive coverage of all parts of the American higher education system can help decrease public cynicism. College, like journalism, is a public good that needs to be fostered and held up to high standards. Its best chance to reclaim the confidence of more Americans is through greater transparency and accountability.

The admissions scandal flashed across our screens this spring like wildfire, demanding our attention — at least for a little while. A speech five years ago by the president of the University of Oklahoma was the exact opposite. Hardly anyone noticed when he tried to raise awareness of a deeper problem: “Without anyone in the country realizing it, we are slowly but surely doing away with public higher education in the United States.”

We thought a lot about that line back then. We used it as inspiration for an ambitious project about public disinvestment in college since the 1980s. It explored — at least for our audience of insiders — the type of slow-moving crisis that is hard for us to get our heads around. It’s even tougher when no one in our community is watching. That’s something we can change.

Here’s our plan

We want to build a network of sophisticated local higher-ed reporters, focused on accountability journalism. We’re going to support that group with a team of national subject-matter experts. These contributing editors can help local reporters so citizens in, say, Mississippi and Minnesota get better coverage of the institutions in their communities.

We’ll pool philanthropic resources to help support improved higher-ed journalism, paying for local newsrooms to have a reporter dedicated to the beat. We’ll tap our national networks of both institutions and corporations to create tools, workshops, and trend reports for people in and around higher education — all with the goal of supporting the broader mission of investigating and elevating higher education.

What can you do to help?

First, tell us the stories you think are getting missed — either nationally or in your local communities.

If you’re in a local newsroom and would be interested in working with us, please let us know.

And if you just want to talk more about why you think this matters? We’d love to listen.

Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood, both former editors at The Chronicle of Higher Education, are the founders of Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding higher education accountable across the country.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus