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Covering the Beat Less Traveled

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Gloria Padilla, Fellow, Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media

A Hechinger Institute fellowship program focuses on community colleges

Gloria Padilla, an editorial writer at the San Antonio Express News, makes no secret of why she's so interested in writing about community colleges-she attended one herself.

A first-generation college student from a family of 12 where English was a second language, Padilla spent a year at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. The associate degree she earned enabled her to transfer to the University of Texas.

Now Padilla is one of six fellows and nine associates participating in the "Covering America, Covering Community Colleges,'' a fellowship offered by TC's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. All 15 spent the first week in October at Teachers College learning more about community colleges and gathering research for major projects.

"We want to encourage, support and reward in-depth reporting on community colleges," says Richard Colvin, Director of the Hechinger Institute, adding that there is insufficient reporting on these institutions, which serve the bulk of the nation's poor and minority college students. Colvin's goal is to "help Americans become much more aware of how important community colleges are in this country."

Jim Jacobs, Associate Director for Community College Operations at TC's Community College Research Center (CCRC), which is co-sponsoring the program, agrees that community colleges get very little media attention.

"Half of the undergraduates in the U.S. attend community colleges, but most reporting done in the media tends to focus almost exclusively on elite colleges or very high-level four-year public institutions," Jacobs says.

"What Hechinger is doing is extremely useful for good journalism and more accurate stories about education by focusing attention on a segment that has not received that much attention in the past,'' Jacobs adds. Participants in the program, supported in its first year by the Lumina Foundation and by the Lumina and Hewlett Foundations in its second year, were selected from a pool of more than 50 applicants based on detailed proposals.

The six fellows are employed by newspapers ranging in size and stature from USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Contra Costa [California] Times and Lansing [Michigan] State Journal. The group will have four months to research, write and eventually publish stories that report on their various community college-related topics. That four-month period began in October with a six-day seminar in New York.

During the seminar, the fellows and associates received a broad overview of community college issues ranging from policy and finance to data and demographics. The fellows heard from seven presidents of community colleges, TC researchers and faculty members, along with journalists from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Inside Higher Education and the Wall Street Journal.

They also took field trips to Kingsborough Community College, met with students and administrators at Borough of Manhattan Community College and spent an afternoon at the computer lab of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

While all 15 participants received a fully paid trip to the New York seminar, only the six fellows also received a $7,500 stipend. In February, the group will return to New York to discuss their projects and share what they have learned. "Everyone is just elated to be able to have the luxury of a week to spend on community colleges," Padilla said during her visit to New York in October. "If we were back at our papers, we would be torn five different ways, and we would be lucky to have one hour to spend."

When something more pressing comes up, she added, such projects take a back seat. For just that reason, the Hechinger Institute required the participants' editors to sign a contract indicating their commitment to the stories.

Padilla's proposal focuses on an effort in Texas, begun more than seven years ago, to increase higher education participation by Hispanics and other minorities through a plan adopted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board called "Closing the Gaps."

The program's goal was to increase student enrollment in Texas colleges and universities by 1.65 million by the year 2015 and to increase the number of undergraduate degrees and certificates by 210,000 in that same period.

According to Padilla in her detailed proposal, although the number of Hispanics earning degrees at Texas colleges and universities has grown 47 percent since the plan's adoption, the increase in total higher education enrollment has not been sufficient enough to allow the state to meet its goals. She says the solution to accomplishing those goals appears to lie in community college enrollments-which, in 2006, made up 80 percent of the growth in enrollment in higher education in the state.

Colvin is pleased by the Fellowship Program's debut and is already looking forward to reading the next round of applications for the 2008 Fellows. "The goal is to create momentum," Colvin says. "After six to 15 pieces of good journalism come out of this first session and are published and disseminated widely, recruiting the next class should be no problem. And even if people don't apply for the program, writers and editors will see the great stories coming out about community colleges and may decide to cover them, too."previous page