Key takeaways from our conversation on HBCUs. Plus, DeSantis’s plans for New College of Florida are a symptom of growing distrust of higher ed.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

Economic drivers, legacy builders

We had a great time at our Telling the Full Story of HBCUs event yesterday — thanks to all who joined us.

Much of the conversation centered on the context that’s missing from public dialogue and media coverage about historically Black colleges and universities. Too often coverage has centered around singular events or scandals. Media outlets also often approach HBCUs only from a deficit perspective, panelists said. We’re hoping our HBCU Student Journalism Network fellows can help change that.

Here are three other takeaways:

  • HBCUs should be considered not just for their cultural impact — they are economic drivers, major employers, and boost both rural and metropolitan areas, said Jarrett Carter, Sr., who helped Open Campus create the network. “I look at homecoming and I think tourism impact. I look at a concert and a step show and I think revenue. I think alumni giving.”
  • HBCUs are “bastions of excellence” with rigorous academic standards, said Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis. “Our students can go anywhere” but they chose to go to an HBCU, she said.
  • Brittany Patterson, a senior at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge and one of our six fellows, said the program is not just a great opportunity for her. She’ll share what she learns with other students at Southern: “This is legacy-building for me. I’m not just taking this for myself.”

Also: NiemanLab wrote a great piece on the creation of the network. Read to learn more from Jarrett and Wesley Wright, the network’s assistant editor.

We’re hoping to help our fellows contribute thoughtful, nuanced coverage on the sector. Do you have story ideas or sources for us? Email us:

— Colleen Murphy

Hillsdale of the South

A blue New College flag
A school flag waves in the wind on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at New College of Florida in Sarasota, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed six conservatives to the board of trustees. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Alaska Miller, a second-year student studying cognitive science and minoring in gender studies at New College of Florida, says the campus is “quirky, queer and creative.” It’s been a progressive enclave in a conservative county. It’s now also at the center of the culture wars, Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson, higher education reporters at our partner newsroom The Tampa Bay Times, reported earlier this week.

This month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped six noted conservatives to the college’s board of trustees. Some Republicans say it’s a step toward creating “a Hillsdale of the South.” (That’s in reference to Hillsdale College, a small, private Christian university that has helped DeSantis shape education policy since 2019, Divya and Ian report. Read the team’s comparison of the two institutions here.)

What’s underway at New College is a microcosm of the broader efforts by conservatives to remake public higher education.

DeSantis has criticized universities for fostering “trendy ideologies.” And public perception of higher ed matters not just because it’s at the core of our work at Open Campus. It’s sinking in — see this 2022 New America poll that found just over half of Americans think colleges and universities are leading the country in a good direction.

The whole enterprise has become a political football, and these ideas aren’t going away — particularly not as talk continues of DeSantis running for president in 2024.

Plus: Florida’s 12 public universities say they plan to spend about $34.5 million on diversity initiatives and related efforts, in response to a request from DeSantis. He wants details next on treatment provided to people seeking gender-affirming care.

Colleen Murphy

College on a contraband phone

Illustration by Lorenzo D’Alessandro for The Marshall Project

“When I first started classes, I was a little nervous,” a college student told Charlotte West, one of our national reporters. His jitters weren’t your run-of-the-mill, first-day-of-class ones. He was worried because he was logging in to his criminal-justice course, at a top research university, from a maximum security prison. And he was using a cell phone he isn’t supposed to have.

“I didn’t want to give any type of indication that I am in prison, because I didn’t want to be kicked out,” he said. “On Zoom, I use a filter with a nice, office-type setting as my background so that others don’t see my actual cell. I never wear uniform clothing, I always wear a white t-shirt, or a t-shirt with some type of artwork on it to kind of change it up.”

He felt he had to creative to get the kind of education he wanted because his prison offers only a few vocational programs. And having a contraband phone, he wrote, has opened up his world.

Read the full essay, which we co-published with The Marshall Project.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

U. of Pittsburgh. Photo: Stephanie Strasburg, PublicSource

From Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh reinstated star basketball player Dior Johnson after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for strangulation and simple assault. That decision upset some students, who say it shows the university cares more about athletic prowess than survivor support.

From Colorado: The share of students receiving Pell Grants at a university is a proxy for how many low-income students it’s serving. By that marker, Colorado School of Mines is struggling to support low-income students. Administrators say they’re hoping to change that — and become “elite, but not elitist.”

From El Paso: Community colleges in Texas almost doubled their completion rates from 2015 to 2020 — from 7% to 13%. Learn how they did it.

From College Inside: Charlotte West, our prison education reporter, takes you to the first statewide prison radio station in the country. The program gives valuable training, and for some inside, a purpose.

From Mississippi: Public officials held closed-door meetings last year as they hashed out changes to the state’s financial aid programs. Lawmakers will soon debate the bill that resulted from those (no longer) undisclosed talks. Find out what they discussed.

From Work Shift: Learn how four community colleges are training students for in-demand fields, while balancing cost challenges.