Holy cow! story, The

holy cow! story, The

Footlick, Jerrold K

Let’s begin with a statement with which virtually every higher education leader can agree: One of the important reasons why Americans understand so little about college costs is that the mass media report the issue inadequately.

Now, what about the following statements? One of the important reasons the mass media fail to report well about college costs is that too many leaders of American colleges and universities do an inadequate job of telling their own stories. They make too little effort to explain their problems to journalists, even to the point of refusing to cooperate on financial stories. While some college and university presidents will not agree with these statements, many experienced journalists do.

Many academic leaders simply don’t understand how the mass media work-even when they think they do-just as many journalists do not grasp how higher education works. These misunderstandings cause unending difficulties in news coverage of higher education, perhaps nowhere more than in today’s reporting about costs.

Various studies indicate that public perception about college costs differs greatly from the reality. The average person doesn’t understand the difference between tuition and total costs; is unaware of the relatively modest tuition that most students pay; and has no idea about the billions of dollars that are available in financial aid. News stories seldom clarify the distinctions, instead focusing on increases in costs nationwide and, especially in the national media, on the most expensive institutions. The stories unsettle even sophisticated students and their families, and sometimes frighten away middle- and lower-income students, who respond to newsmagazine covers even if they don’t grasp the details. The result is a public that is not as well informed as it should be.

In the fall of 1997, the American Council on Education asked me to interview a number of journalists about how they cover college costs-print journalists at newspapers and magazines, electronic journalists on radio and television, and journalists at major national and leading regional news organizations. Almost none of the responses I received surprised me. But the degree of journalists’ skepticism (even cynicism) about college costs may surprise academicians.

Journalists are quick to point out that they aren’t making up their stories-that the price of college has risen dramatically, even at lower-cost institutions. Journalists also are extremely wary about the way college budgets are administered and costs calculated, and their doubts are enhanced by the apparent unwillingness of many administrators to explain their methods or share information. Right or wrong, journalists don’t believe that public anxiety about college costs is their fault. (Journalists also think that educators are wary of them; they are no doubt right about that. )

This attitude among journalists shifts significant responsibility to higher education leaders. If they want their stories told better, they must be more open with information than many now are. This might mean answering uncomfortable questions or explaining embarrassing facts, but it would help journalists make sense of the college costs process. It also could help higher education earn a greater degree of trust from journalists-and perhaps, through them, from the public-than now exists. If journalists see colleges and universities gaining control of costs and possibly relieving financial pressures on students, they will report the efforts as big news.

Making News

But it should not be “news” to sophisticated educators that reporters reach for extremes to build a story-the most expensive, the most famous, the most unusual. If dog bites man, it is not news; if man bites dog, it is news. According to Mel Elfin, who recently retired from US. News & World Report, where he created the magazine’s “ratings” system, “[T]here is exaggeration by the press in the use of the highest numbers for costs, acting as if the Mercedes was standard when most people drive Saturns; yes, that is unfair. But that is journalism, its stock in trade. Journalism is not the stuffy or an exercise in the ordinary. What interests journalists is the extraordinarycontroversy and hyperbole. College tuition right now is a `Holy Cow!’ story”-as in, “Holy Cow! Have you seen what the costs of college have gone up to?”

Gil Thelen, executive editor of The State in Columbia, SC, chose a more delicate phrase: “What we’ve got here [media coverage of college costs] is another example of a craft malady of journalismtaking the extremes to move to the middle. It is a problem in the craft, and I’m criticizing it, not defending it, because it can get in the way of understanding. It is often illegitimate in terms of the complex realities that I know. [On the other hand], it is a device that readers have gotten on to, usually on an unconscious level. I think of it as a framing device.”

One reporter cited two examples that he said demonstrated that anxiety about college costs had clearly entered the American cultural and political mainstream: first, a cartoon showing a distinguished-looking, middleaged man on a street corner holding a tin cup and a sign, “Two in College”; and second, the appointment by Congress of a commission to study college costs.

Reporting Costs

If tuition andfees at a college is $20, 000, room and board is $6, 000, books and travel is $2 000, and miscellaneous spending is $2,000, is the cost of a year in college $20, 000 or $30, 000?

If tuition andfees at a college is $3, 000, room and board is $6, 000, books and travel is $2, 000, and miscellaneous spending is $2, 000, is the cost of a year in college $3, 000 or $13, 000?

Journalists repeatedly made the point that colleges are being disingenuous when they cite only tuition costs. As a Washington magazine writer put it, “People think in terms of the total cost of college. After all, people are writing checks. They don’t make a distinction [about what the money goes for].”

This writer illustrated her point with an anecdote about ACEsponsored focus groups, in which subjects tended to overestimate tuition costs by thousands of dollars. Yet these estimates were not far off total costs. She accepted the premise that the subjects were told clearly that they were being asked only about tuition. She contended, however, that this demonstrates that people don’t separate the costs; rather they consider what they really must spend.

This applies at any economic level. A reporter in the South noted that many students at one state’s historically black colleges pay little or no tuition. “But where fear comes in,” she said, “is when they get to college-they need a place to live, they have to eat, they have to buy books. The kids [many of them first-generation college students] have no idea. I have done stories on teachers who help them, give them personal loans, take care of them, open their homes to them, give them books for free. Otherwise, many drop out.”

When I asked several of the journalists why room and board should count, given that people have to live somewhere and eat something whether or not they are in college, they did not concede the point: If these people weren’t in college, they would be living at home, with limited cost to them and their families, and they probably would be working to help their families; or they would be living on their own while earning income to support themselves. Room and board counts, the journalists insisted. Judging by their reactions-and presumably their readers’ and viewers’educators are kidding themselves if they think the public will separate tuition from total college costs.

Several journalists made another point concerning real costs. While doing more stories about the availability of financial aid, they also are reporting that loans make up a far greater proportion of financial assistance than in years past, which can leave graduates with serious debts. The message of post-college debt has taken hold, with both reporters and readers. Loans not only are a burden, reporters said, but also are affecting career choices: Many young people think they cannot afford to take lower-paying socialservice jobs if they must pay back loans of frightening size.

The Northeastern Effect

Setting aside quality comparisons, Northeastern private colleges and universities most regularly enter the consciousness of yournali.stic decision makers because a disproportionate number of leading reporters and editors have attended them. Andjust as important, those who haven’t attended those institutions, but now live in New York and Washington, have become acculturated to wanting their children to attend them . . . Journalists are people whose work is affected by theirpersonal lives, just as is everyone else’s. 1

Every reporter, editor, and producer with whom I spoke agreed with the premise that major national news organizations, many of which are based in New York or Washington, are overly conscious of the famous private colleges and universities of the Northeast, not least where cost is concerned. I emphasize that the journalists who work for these national news organizations agreed as strongly with this premise as did reporters from anywhere else in the country.

Last year, Time magazine ran the cover story “Why Colleges Cost Too Much,” written by a University of Pennsylvania graduate who admitted in the second paragraph that he has three daughters who might also want to attend Penn, then carved up Penn’s spending decisions.2 Newsweek published a 1995 story with the cover headline “$1,000 a Week: The Scary Cost of College,” edited by a Cornell University graduate.3

Any number of similar pieces can be found in newspapers, magazines, and network broadcasts across the nation, and a few are ghastly: They multiply $30,000 by four to get $120,000, then double that to get $240,000, which they tell readers will be the cost of college within a dozen years or so, as if the totals were certain and applied to everyone.

These writers know, or could easily learn, that (according to The Chronicle of Higher Education) only about 60 of the 3,700 accredited colleges in the nation currently charge $20,000 or more in tuition and fees.4

It is fair to observe that these 60 or so institutions are, as a group, the most admired private institutions in the nation, that they set a standard against which much of higher education is judged, and that a great many more students want to attend them than are admitted. Nonetheless, only one in 100 students nationwide will attend one of them, and news organizations with national audiences sometimes “obsess over the elites so much,” as one editor said, “that they ignore where most of their readers’ children go [to college].”

More neutral stories are not unknown. The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, using the “news hook” of Chelsea Clinton’s decision to attend Stanford University, brought together three presidents, from Amherst College in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most expensive colleges; City College in New York, one of the least expensive; and Muskingum College in Ohio, which reduced tuition by $4,000 to $9,850 in an effort to stimulate applications. They were joined by a professor who criticized university administrations.

Many reporters, especially those outside the Northeast, suspect that higher education authorities in Washington and college presidents, influenced as they surely are by New York- and Washington-based media, are more worried about the impact of national news organizations than people in the rest of the country. Nonetheless, members of the House and Senate who represent those outside the Northeast and affect policy back home also pay attention to the national news media.

The Local Story

It is not easy if you live and work in the Northeast to avoid the influence of the region. Yet, over and over, I heard journalists around the country say that their coverage of costs is mostly about local and regional colleges and universities. In one reporter’s words: “We run the AP story every year on how much college costs have gone up, but what my editors want to know is what does it cost here?” Reporters believe that most readers are getting a reasonable picture of costs as they apply to the nearby institutions that most students in the area will attend.

A leading example is Georgia, where the state’s Hope Scholarships provide free public institution tuition for students maintaining a “B” average. Georgians may argue over issues related to the Hope Scholarships, such as whether they exacerbate “grade inflation.” But there can be little doubt that the understanding among Georgia students and their parents that students can attend a state college or university without paying tuition “shadows everything” in their planning-and their comfort level. A Georgia reporter said, “This leads us to spend a lot of time on total costs of college. We do stories explaining the health fees, why they are different from school to school, and differences in student fees at colleges with big-time sports programs and those without.”

People fortunate enough to live in states with extraordinary systems of public higher education usually know enough to take advantage of them, journalists said. Summing up the attitude in one of those states, a reporter said, “Seventy-five percent of Wisconsin high school students who go to college go to a Wisconsin campus. That’s our audience. That’s who we’re writing for.

We’ve run wire stories on national costs, but a lot of it doesn’t affect people here because the state system is so strong.” One person suggested, not entirely facetiously, that states such as California, Texas, and North Carolina, with their excellent public systems, ought to trumpet prices in brochures and advertisements, like auto dealers do, to make certain the public knows what a bargain they are.

Journalists think that people generally are aware of how relatively inexpensive their public institutions are in comparison with private colleges and universities. One reporter opined that the people who are directly concerned with college prices-that is, students and parents-are more understanding and less fearful than the average citizen, who pays only casual attention to news stories about costs. Still, the difficulty with many local papers, a reporter with wideranging experience observed, is that they provide too little national context. Because of parochial reporting, people in some low-tuition states “don’t understand how low their tuitions are compared to others’.” In many of these states, a relatively small increase in tuition, which may look high as a percentage factor, can anger and frighten residents, who are accustomed to bargains. “The universities tell us not to use percentages, but the dollar increase,” another reporter said with amusement.

A well-regarded higher education writer in the Southwest acknowledged the impact that national stories have on some anxious parents. “People jump to conclusions. `Yikes! Better save money.’ But there are all kinds of factors. Not all of us are going to Harvard. Most of us aren’t.” She suggested that journalists have some responsibility to reduce college-costs anxiety. “I approach stories like this with the statement: There is always money for education. You can beg, borrow, work your way through. You don’t need a nice car. Nobody is going to stop you.”

Unfortunately, too few journalists with that degree of skill and thoughtfulness cover higher education. Given the current economic realities of journalism-news organizations have downsized along with other businessescircumstances are not likely to improve anytime soon. Considering the way journalism works, has always worked, and will always work, prospects for a quiet, sophisticated discussion of college costs, even in the best of popular media, seem modest. Educators must understand that and work with the world of communications as it is, not as they wish it could be.

Jerrold K. Footlick, Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises (Phoenix, Arizona: The Oryx Press, 1997), p. 6. 2 “Why Colleges Cost Too Much,” Time, Vol. 149, No. 11, March 17, 1997, pp. 46-55.

3 “Those Scary College Costs,” Newsweek, Vol. CXXVII, No. 18, April 29, 1996, pp. 52-56. 4 “Tuition and Fees at More Than 3,000 Colleges and Universities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XLIV, No. 6, October 3,1997, p. 50.

JERROLD K. FOOTLICK, a former senior editor of Newsweek, is a counselor to university and foundation executives and the author of a new book, Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises. This article is adapted from a report prepared for the American Council on Education.

Copyright American Council on Education Spring 1998

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