The assumptions journalists make about education after high school

New Delhi, September 24, 2018: If your college experience included a dorm room, four years studying in ivy-covered libraries and an eventual job offer that earned you more money than you made before, it does not represent the realities of post-high school education in the United States today.

Poynter’s upcoming two-day workshop will challenge the assumptions many people make about post-high school education — from college as an avenue to social mobility to the actual makeup of the student body — and help journalists tell more accurate stories that affect their communities according to reports published in poynter.org

The intensive two-day workshop will be Nov. 15-16 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and is free for accepted applicants.

As the Sept. 21 application deadline approaches, I asked the lead faculty for the workshop, Kathleen Bartzen Culver, about why all types of journalists should pay attention to higher education, how researchers are reimagining the American Dream and how a solutions-oriented lens can elevate reporting.

Mel Grau: How does the media get stories about higher education wrong? 

Kathleen Bartzen Culver: People mistakenly believe that we have somehow solved inequalities in higher education. People often misunderstand the role of community college in the higher education picture, and they do not understand the financial realities of college today.

And I think people get wrong the number of adult students who come back to try to find that social mobility and who are parenting and working while trying to get through a college education.

Grau: Let’s dig into the financial realities of college today. Are you asking for more contextual stories about budget cuts for universities? 
Culver: When I talk about the changing fiscal picture for higher education and other paths beyond high school, what I’m talking about is that for a long time, we had tremendous public support for public higher education. That support has been steadily shrinking. It’s not just recent budget cuts. It’s been a slow change over time. You’ll see states where a public university maybe had 40 percent of its budget underwritten by the public in the 1980s, and now that’s down to the low- to mid-teens.

One of the things that we’re going to be looking into is the implications of that change in how we fund higher education, and what that means for students.

Grau: To your point about what news media gets wrong, do you recommend that journalists reexamine the makeup of the student body in college?
Culver: I think we all need to be careful not to have a Hollywood-idealized version of what happens for students beyond high school — the idea that everyone goes on to some kind of public or private four-year degree. We need to think about the whole picture of higher education, which includes coming back later in life. It includes community college. It includes certifications and apprenticeships. We can’t make these default assumptions. This whole seminar is about learning to tell the truth about the world beyond high school according to reports published in poynter.org

Grau: What will it look like for journalists to start telling these stories with a solutions-oriented lens?
Culver: The impacts would be vast. Some people make the mistake of thinking that issues like this ought to be covered just by education reporters. That’s not the case. If you look at the criminal justice system, for instance, the paths that people have to reconnect with their communities after a period of incarceration are correlated with literacy and education rates.

What we’re going to do during these two days is to think about higher education more broadly; think about the connections between higher education and justice issues, between higher education and governmental issues. Education affects virtually every aspect of a community, and higher education is part of that picture.

Grau: So this seminar is not just geared toward education reporters. Who else could benefit?
Culver: Reporters who cover economics and business, health

, justice and government will also benefit.

Let’s say we’re talking about race-based or class-based inequality in higher education, and you’re a business reporter interested in start-up culture. Well of course, if start-up culture has a deep connection to innovation within a university setting, and we have this culture of inequity, then, of course, that inequity is going to extend to that start-up community, as well.

It’s important for a business reporter to be able to track connections between whatever it is they’re covering and the education picture.

Grau: We’re talking about dismantling the American Dream, which is kind of depressing —
Culver: I don’t think we’re talking about a dismantling. I think people who are researching and reporting on these issues now are trying to uncover what the next phase of the American Dream looks like. The American Dream is about mobility. Can people move from one position to a better position? Right now, we have fundamental questions about whether this is true. If so, what is the path? And what is the connection between education and that path?

Grau: As someone who pays attention to this issue, what piece of the puzzle gives you the most hope? 
Culver: One of the things that makes me optimistic is the fact that we’re having this training at all. The fact that the Lumina Foundation is investing in helping journalists tell better stories about education can help us find our way toward solutions.

It’s not just individual journalists alone in the wilderness trying to figure this out — it’s about trying to create a community of practice that is helping cover this issue better.

Grau: The instructors at this seminar are part of that community of practice. What will participants learn from them? 
Culver: From Jamaal Abdul-Alim, the education editor at The Conversation US, they’re going to take away a new set of perspectives and in-depth insight to the kinds of issues we’re exploring.

From the researchers like Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, a colleague of mine at UW-Madison, journalists will gain an in-depth understanding of cutting-edge research and have a new — pardon the analog term — Rolodex of people they can contact to help them on future stories.

Grau: How will journalists be able to localize this research? 
Culver: I want to focus on two things:

  1. When it comes to education, none of our local communities exist independent of national trends. For example, when you’re talking about shrinking public support for higher education, you’re talking about that in every single state in the country. Participants will get this rich understanding of the national picture that they can use as a backdrop for stories within their own community.
  2. I hope that we do establish this community of practice coming out of the seminar. So that when one person does a story in Tucson, they share it with rest of the group, and another person in Toledo could say, ‘Wow, that was a really cool story on recidivism rates and education. Maybe I can check out that solution in my community.’

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