When Talking About Higher Education, Be Inclusive

More than 19 million people are enrolled in higher education in the US today and more than 16 million of them take classes at the undergraduate level. The popular conception of college is young men and women living in dorms and taking classes full-time. Reality is different. Less than one in five students attend a residential college. Most students study while living at home and part-time study is common, especially among older students. One of three college students is over the age of twenty-five. And about 44% of all college students study at a community college.

These facts are important. They help us understand and frame discussions about higher education – where it is today and where it might go in the future. It is vital that the media reports this accurately if we are to have an informed conversation about education. Unfortunately, stereotypes are often perpetuated, like recently in Sunday’s September 13 New York Times.

I have been a Times reader for longer than I care to admit. But before you jump to conclusions, please permit a brief qualifier: I do not take it as gospel. It is a strong newspaper, deep in many areas and weak in others. On that later point, a few thoughts about the Sunday magazine “Education Issue.”

The magazine runs 70 pages, including a few recurring features like the crossword puzzle. The issue features six articles on higher education: Adam Davidson on tuition, Nikole Hannah-Jones on Xavier University’s strong pre-med program for African-Americans, Clive Thompson on Uber and other tech firms raiding research institutions, a visual piece on architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and Emily Bazelon on sexual assault in higher education.

Starting the issue is a thoughtful piece by Kwame Anthony Appiah on the competing trends in American higher education: utility and utopia. It is a provocative lens to understand the push by many for a college education to lead to a good job (the utilitarians) and the contrasting want to make sure that college students have a strong liberal arts degree (the utopians). Both, of course, are exist in most institutions of higher education. A traditional four-year degree in America consists of at least half the courses in general education. We are a long ways from specific vocational training. Any step in the direction, however, and every perceived weakening of a commitment to liberal arts, is fiercely contested.

The Education Issue does not claim to be comprehensive. It does, though, cast a broad view of American higher education through the articles and topics it presents: academic values, cost, politics, race, and gender. Amid all that prose and thought about higher education, community colleges are mentioned but once. The reference is specific – two paragraphs about the successes of the CUNY ASAP program and with the observation that it is showing remarkable gains in helping at risk students. The City University of New York’s program offers students a highly structured, and supported, associate degree. It has helped many more students graduate.

The reference is something of a backhand compliment. CUNY’s community colleges are labeled as one of the nation’s most troubled, without any criteria. Ignored are the problems with measuring a community college’s graduation rate by first-time full-time students, as well as the honors and high rankings of CUNY’s community colleges.

The blinkered coverage in the New York Times’ education issue perpetuates traditional misconceptions of higher education. Tremendously important and interesting things are taking place at community colleges, where more than two out of five of all college students study. The value and potential of this massive sector in American higher education should be a consistent part of the conversation.

The media – New York Times and others – need to be more thoughtful and inclusive when reporting on higher education.

David Potash

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