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The Elite Discourse of Higher Education Reporting



The other day, Stanford got a ton of publicity for offering free tuition for all students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. My response. Fine, but it’s not a big deal. Three thoughts came to my mind. First, if you are going to take out debt to go to college, doing it at Stanford is far, far more likely to pay off than at almost any other school in the country. Second, while there is certainly nothing wrong with Stanford doing this, in the larger discussion of higher education costs in this country, it is statistically meaningless. The few thousand (tops) this will affect each year at Stanford are dwarfed by the millions of young people at colleges around the nation. Until we deal with their rising debt loads, the problem remains. Third, why does so much higher education reporting focus on elite schools, even though the number of students attending them are so small?

Incidentally, Corey Robin had the same question recently, citing an article discussion conditions of education in prisons that aren’t all that different than a lot of our colleges. Yet they are shocking to the writer.

The reason for this disconnect is clear enough to me. Most reporters come from elite schools. It’s what they know. Their friends and coworkers came from elite schools. Community colleges, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, or even a good but not elite state school like the University of Rhode Island is basically terra incognita for most of the people reporting on higher education in this country. Like so much else in our society, unquestioned class privilege allows for the reproduction of conversations about higher education that know the millions of people going to college at non-elite institutions exist, but without any real comprehension of their lives or ability to write about them usefully.

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