How We Talk About Regional Publics

Regional colleges educate about two in five of America’s college students. Cecilia Orphan was one of them.

But despite enrolling millions of people, these colleges can often seem invisible, she says. And when they’re not, well, sometimes that’s almost worse.

This week Orphan, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver, and some of her colleagues launched the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. A central goal, she says, is to raise awareness of their roles and to make the narratives about them more complex.

For Orphan, some of this is personal. “I am a tenure-track prof because of the power of Regional Colleges,” she tweeted this week.

A first-generation college student, she applied to just one school out of high school: the big public research university in her hometown, Oregon State. She dropped out. “It was so inhospitable for someone like me,” she says.

She enrolled at a community college and then found her way to a public regional: Portland State. That, she says, is where she found her footing.

Here are three misconceptions about regional colleges that Orphan wants to change:

They’re always trying to be something they’re not. There are a lot of stories about the strivers, the regionally oriented publics that are desperate to climb the U.S. News rankings. They prioritize prestige over access and lose sight of their mission. Sure, Orphan says, that absolutely does happen. She’s not trying to gloss over the pressures. “But that’s just not the case across the board.”

In fact, she says, quantitative analyses have shown that regional colleges on the whole have become more accessible over time. They are, as a sector, becoming less selective: accepting more students, measured by both total numbers and by the percentages of applicants admitted.

They’re all on the brink of closure. It’s true, she says, that regional colleges are under-resourced — and that’s a big problem — but very few are about to shut down. And when decline becomes the dominant narrative, that’s a problem, too, Orphan says.

Financial resources, from states and the federal government, flow to places seen as vital. The perception of who is vital and who is not helps flagships, for example, and perpetuates inequities in funding that harms regional colleges. That narrative also can suppress enrollment, she says, if potential students see regional colleges not as bright spots but as challenged institutions.

They’re not prestigious. Why don’t we consider it prestigious to enroll a working-class, immigrant mother and help her succeed? Why is it more prestigious to enroll “the best and the brightest,” people who are often white and middle or upper class and who’ve tended to benefit from lots of advantages in life?

Our labels are problematic, Orphan says. Think about how people talk about regional colleges. They’re often defined by what they’re not: “lower tier” or “non-flagship.” That, she says, implies that what they’re not is what they should be.

The framing matters, she says. It reflects whether or not we truly see, and therefore treat, regional colleges as an important part of the higher ed landscape and as a vital part of society.

— Sara Hebel

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Our New Reporter in Mississippi

Molly Minta

We’re excited to welcome Molly Minta to our team of Open Campus local network reporters. She starts her new position with Mississippi Today on Tuesday.

A Florida native, Molly has worked for The Nation and The Appeal.

Journalism, she says, was something she discovered as a freshman at the University of Florida, working for an alternative magazine in Gainesville. “I grew to love helping people understand the community around them by challenging and tending to the stories we tell about ourselves,” she says. “Now that’s all I want to do. Plus, like all journalists, I am nosy by nature.”

As for covering higher education? We want to see it as a system dedicated to creating a better world, Molly says. It’s about ideas, discoveries, education. “But far too often,” she says, “colleges and universities fail these ideals in ways that strike at the heart of fundamental questions about justice, equity, and fairness. That contradiction is fertile ground for any investigative journalist.”

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In latitude(s) this week, Karin Fischer looked at how the attack on the Capitol plays into perceptions international students and their families have about the United States: “For international ed, President-elect Biden could mean new policies. Perceptions, though, may be slower to change.”

In Cleveland, Amy Morona talked to college-access advocates about how recently approved plans to simplify the FAFSA might change things.

In Santa Cruz, Nick Ibarra covered the University of California at Santa Cruz’s release of a plan that would shape decades of growth. Enrollment there is projected to keep climbing, rising by 44 percent over the next 20 years. “Even before its release, the plan has drawn criticism — and threats of legal action — from a wide community of locals leery of further campus growth.”

And in Pittsburgh, Naomi Harris looked at how the coronavirus will keep changing college life there this semester. That means more testing, better online learning, and newly flexible calendars.


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