“Such Tremendous Power”: Dr. Shirley M. Collado Talks to Higher-Ed Reporters for NACAC Audience
It’s been a turbulent few years for higher education, with a global pandemic, falling college enrollment, Supreme Court decisions, student-loan debt controversy, and now skyrocketing inflation. On Friday, September 23, on the main stage of this year’s National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference, College Track President & CEO Shirley M. Collado — who is also President Emerita of Ithaca College — interviewed four of higher education’s most influential journalists about how they approach covering their complex beat.
“As journalists, you have such tremendous power in formulating the story, building a narrative. And we are currently in a country where the truth and the facts are constantly called into question. So with that, what do you believe really is the role of a journalist in America right now, particularly in education?”
—Dr. Shirley M. Collado, College Track President & CEO
“We’re going to keep it real today,” Dr. Collado promised the several thousand college admissions professionals in the audience — and the panelists did, with introspection, candor, and humor.
Speaking on background
At Dr. Collado’s prompting, the journalists began by reflecting on how their upbringings and lived experiences have shaped the lens through which they view higher education, affecting which stories they’re drawn to pursue and how they go about telling those stories.
“Education was always the No. 1 goal in my family,” said Naomi Harris, who reports on race and equity in higher education for Open Campus Media. Her father was in the military; her mother got her bachelor’s and then her master’s, bringing the toddler Naomi to class. When it came time for Harris herself to go to college, she chose the University of Maryland at College Park for its affordability. “So for me, I like to look at higher education as a place of opportunity, but understanding what that really means.…Oftentimes it’s seen as a great equalizer, but as I’m sure many of you in this room know, that’s not necessarily the case, depending on your background and the access you have to post-secondary education.”
Chronicle of Higher Education Senior Writer Eric Hoover had two teachers as parents; his high-school English-teacher father was often busy writing college recommendation letters during winter break. “I’ve always been interested in this liminal space, this moment between childhood and adulthood, of transition or potential transition, from one kind of life to another. That’s part of what admissions is about, right?” he said. “It’s not just about tuition, revenue, and prestige. It is about a transition in a young person’s life. Is it going to be an easy one or rough one? I’m drawn to that as a human question.”
Melissa Korn, higher education reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said that at her high school, it was a foregone conclusion that everyone would go to a four-year college, mostly private ones. Financial aid was not a topic of conversation for most families. “And I think it took a little while, once I was in college, to realize just how unnatural and abnormal that is,” she admitted. “As I got to know my roommates and learned so much more about the socioeconomic diversity of the student population, it really hit hard that I needed to make sure that those stories were being told, because I hadn’t heard them when I was much younger.”
Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education (and most recently, the war in Ukraine) for NPR, was drawn to the education beat because “it’s a sneaky way to be able to cover everything: housing and the economy, innovation, happiness. Literally everything you could think of to cover is education.” But, she added later, America’s top news outlets are still staffed mostly by people who attended the same small group of Ivy League schools: “And those are the alumni magazines they’re reading. That’s the Twitter feeds. That’s where they’re getting their story ideas.”
The role of journalists today
“As journalists, you have such tremendous power in formulating the story, building a narrative,” Dr. Collado said. “And we are currently in a country where the truth and the facts are constantly called into question. So with that, what do you believe really is the role of a journalist in America right now, particularly in education?”
Korn pointed to an in-depth package she and her Journal colleagues worked on about student debt and how some universities relied a lot on the “easy money” of federal loans; “there is something broken about the student loan system.” She hoped the half-dozen stories, Page One pieces with graphics and data and interactives, and free ebook (The WSJ Guide to Student Loans: Navigating the Myths and Misunderstandings About College Debt) would “help people understand the process better, so that there might be more accountability in Washington, and maybe some schools would think, ’We could do a little bit better.’”
Dr. Collado asked how they approached building relationships and establishing trust with their sources from underrepresented communities. They acknowledged the weight of that responsibility. “I’m drawn to reporting about students who are especially vulnerable, and often those students don’t look like me. And I know they have many reasons to not trust me,” said Hoover. “So I’ve let go of this old hard-boiled journalist theme, where you just have to be completely objective and stone faced. I will show my emotions. Not maybe when interviewing a college president, but with young people and families, I will let myself be vulnerable. I might not have a shared experience with them, but I’m a person, I have this job, I’m hoping to write this article. I’m going to be vulnerable and share a little about myself and try to be honest.”
Calling for systemic change
To close, Dr. Collado asked the panelists what about their work kept them up at night — and what they were optimistic about.
“That there are so many issues that keep getting talked about, yet there’s so little action that you see happen,” said Harris. “I talk often with researchers, for example, who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve been working on this issue for 20 years.’ So when will we see real systemic change?” She mentioned a story she’d investigated about the role race has played historically in merit-based aid in the South, and how surprised people were about the demographics of these state-sponsored scholarships that had been around for decades. She continued: “I’ve seen so many lovely statements from universities talking about the importance of focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion. Congratulations. What does that mean in terms of the amount of professors on your tenure track or who have tenure?”
“I’m really excited about how we’re leaning away from focusing on individual success stories and figuring out what’s happening on a systemic level and structurally what we need to do to provide real change.”
—Naomi Harris, Open Campus Media
Despite being a self-professed pessimist, Hoover said he found hope in the media’s increasing recognition that an individual’s success or failure in high school or college is not purely a result of their “determination and grit and whatever else.…So often a student who doesn’t succeed, it’s not because they didn’t have ‘it.’ They didn’t have a network; they didn’t have people pulling them, pushing them.”
Harris agreed. “I’m really excited about how we’re leaning away from focusing on individual success stories and figuring out what’s happening on a systemic level and structurally what we need to do to provide real change,” she said.
The pandemic, she added, has revealed the realities of many students’ lives in ways that can no longer be ignored. “We’re reaching a point where it’s like, Now we see what’s happening, and we have to really address it — or else there will be no systemic change.”