Higher ed reporters meet to learn, share, gripe
Several dozen higher education reporters from around the nation gathered Friday and Saturday in the serenely quiet coastal city of St. Petersburg (Motto: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.) to discuss academia, the challenges it faces and how to convert those challenges into high-impact journalism.
The annual Education Writers Association higher-ed conference brought together several big names in the field, along with a cross-section of big-city and small-town journalists and a smattering of lower-level policy wonks. The high point, surely, was the luncheon talk by Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik, who spent a half-hour reciting a list of superb story ideas his publication had covered and most everyone else's had not.
We also learned that neither we nor college officials know all that much about the appropriate use of FERPA, the law that sets most -- but not nearly all -- facts about students off-limits from reporters. Most colleges appear to err on the side of nondisclosure.
Here is a synopsis of some high points from the intense, two-day, 16-hour seminar:
Retention and completion
Mamie Lynch, a researcher from the Education Trust, told an interesting story about Georgia State University, an institution that has swung its "graduation gap" 10 points in favor of underrepresented minorities in the past several years.
She said a key to raising the college's completion rate was taking a closer look at retention. It turned out that while 80 percent of students were returning from freshman to sophomore year, only 22 percent had achieved sophomore standing. The rest were basically treading water.
The university largely fixed the problem by offering new freshman seminars, supplemental instruction and stronger freshman advising, all toward a goal of getting more freshmen to enter their second year as actual sophomores.
Moderator Eric Gorski of the Associated Press cited an AP poll that found people think it's up to students, and to a lesser extent their parents, to finish college -- and that it's not up to colleges. In other words, the various national efforts to prod colleges to raise completion rates may not meet with resounding public support.
Privacy and public records
Steven McDonald, legal counsel to the Rhode Island School of Design, told the roomful of reporters that federal student privacy law has some surprising caveats, to collective gasps. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act generally declares student records to be confidential. But colleges cite it in many instances where it does not actually apply.
For one, thing, FERPA doesn't govern personal knowledge, information inside someone's head. It also doesn't cover private K-12 schools, which don't take federal dollars, McDonald said. Nor does it cover records that are the "sole possession" of one official. Nor alumni records. Nor law enforcement records. (There are exceptions to some of these exceptions.) Directory information -- a student's name, address, years of attendance and such -- is mostly public.
Journalists shared many tales of records that colleges inappropriately withheld, citing FERPA.
"From my perspective as a journalist, they're making it up as they go along," said Jill Riepenhoff, a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch.
Reporters can blow the lid off this practice, Jaschik said, by calling attention "to what was covered up and why."
Per-student spending in public colleges is down 5 to 10 percent since the start of the recession. But "we're starting for the first time in three years to seen an increase in state revenue," said Mike Griffith, an analyst with Education Commission of the States.
A lively discussion ensued about how colleges ought to spend -- or withhold -- their money. Would students and their parents rather see scarce resources go toward a fancy new gym, a climbing wall, an executive chef and food court, or toward a hard-earned one- or two-student decrease in the average professor's class size?
Howard Bunsis, on the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors, lamented that colleges increasingly resemble "country clubs. That's what they all seem to be competing with."
Trustees are more impressed with rock-climbing walls than class-size reduction, he said.
Faculty and tenure
Only two-fifths of today's faculty are full-time, Bunsis said, at universities that have "too many administrators making too much money."
Later in the evening, though, authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus argued that academic tenure should be abolished. Tenured professors have no incentive to perform, Hacker said, because they enjoy complete job security and are effectively their own bosses. He cited the example of Harvard University's history faculty, where nearly half the members are on paid sabbatical at any given time, not teaching at all, and yet are still counted toward the university's single-digit student-faculty ratio.
Dave Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said colleges should start thinking hard about how to crack down on "credit creep." This is the tendency for students to amass more credits than they actually need to graduate, which can waste both time and money.
The average graduate has 14 more credit hours than necessary, and those who have transferred from two- to four-year colleges often have significantly more than that (if they ever finish).
Excess credits increase the cost of a degree by 12 percent, a panelist said.
Solution? Better counseling. And students might choose a major at the end of their freshman year, to add focus to the four-year education.
Aid expert Mark Kantrowitz predicted that "public colleges, many of them, are going to have double-digit tuition increase this year" as federal stimulus dollars lapse.
Pat Watkins, director of financial aid at Eckerd College, lamented the steady rise of tuition discounting and suggested that some colleges will not be able to sustain their revenue patterns: "How long can you continue to operate with 40- and 50-percent discount rates?"
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Daniel de Vise
| February 5, 2011; 6:31 PM ET
Categories: Access, Administration, Admissions, Aid, Attainment, Finance, Labor, Pedagogy, Public policy, Research, Students | Tags: EWA conference, college admission, college financial aid, higher education conference, higher education media, student privacy
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