In the rear view mirror

Writing in Slate, Tressie McMillan Cottom looks back on the media's obsession with higher education in 2013.  I guess bad publicity is better than no publicity.

Speaking of the Times, they devoted a lot of resources to long-form reporting on higher ed this year. Their coverage of what researchers call tuition discounting at expensive universities is an example of how the higher-ed inside game jumped into popular awareness in 2013. The Atlantic, Politico, and yours truly here at Slate started delving into the complexity of higher ed memes in ways that had once been primarily the domain of niche publications like Inside Higher Ed. Nonprofit initiatives such as the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch leveraged a steady stream of empirical research on higher-ed trends from the likes of PolicyMic and the Brookings Institution. Demos best exemplified how this convergence of in-depth analysis and resources from intersecting organizations made for better analysis. Demos didn’t just pick up on a Century Foundation report on declining public investment in community colleges. It put those findings in the context of trends in for-profit higher education and skyrocketing student loan debt. Demos also produced what was, pound-for-pound, my favorite white paper of the year: Its empirically grounded analysis of the long-term effects of student loan debt applies rigorous social science methods to a question that matters to millions of Americans. Even better, the report is well-written, approachable, and readily available. That is research and analysis that matters. 
Our obsession with higher education often came out in stories that were ostensibly about completely separate issues. Coverage of the federal government shutdown in October featured a lot of student voices, but little of it focused on working-class and poor students, whose food and child care subsidies were hit hard because wealthy pols in Washington couldn’t play nicely in their publicly subsidized sandbox. And while you might be hard-pressed to think of a fodder less suited for a higher-ed think piece than the morass that is the U.S. tax code, Elizabeth Stoker and Matthew Bruenig pulled off a wicked smart analysis in Salon of how inequalities manifest through tax policies, are rewarded by legacy admissions at prestigious universities, and altogether make a mockery of American meritocracy.


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