“In a town where there's a major research university, there is usually one reporter covering higher education, but even including [him or her], there are probably no more that 40 or 50 reporters who can make a living covering higher education,” notes Dick Jones, president of Dick Jones Communications.
The lack of journalists has resulted in education reporters stretching their expertise from kindergarten to college reporting, says Debra Humphreys, VP of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“Given the number of people attending college or working with a college or university, there should be more coverage,” she says. “But a lot of outlets now have reporters covering both kindergarten to 12th grade and higher education, and the issues that tend to directly impact their audience bubble up more in kindergarten to 12th.”
Jeff Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, says there is so much breaking higher education news for him to cover, he now uses the publication's Web site for daily university news. He adds that what sets his outlet apart are its industry-specific trends and features.
“Every fall we do a series on compensation of top university heads,” he says. “We're aimed at college presidents, trustees, administrators, and faculty members, so the key for PR is to really think about that audience. One example is [that] the competition to attract top students is growing, but so is competition to attract top faculty members. So we're doing a lot of stories on that.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Schackner, who specializes in higher education, says a lot of his coverage is centered on colleges in western Pennsylvania.
“We are also looking for trends – we just completed a series on what determines success or failure in college, and for those kinds of stories we look for colleges outside our area,” he says.
With the number of higher education reporters on the decline, the best bet for many schools to get noticed is the annual rankings distributed by media outlets, notably US News & World Report.
Yet Humphreys notes that many schools are torn by how to approach rankings.
“They talk about how... a lot of it is just a giant popularity contest,” she says. “I also think that only a small sector of parents and students pay attention to them... but that being said, any college at the top of a list is going to highlight that fact, because people do pay attention.”
- Few outlets have higher-education beat reporters, so the best media strategy might be to focus on the metro editor with ideas about the schools in their area
- PR has little direct impact on national college rankings, but there is an indirect impact by raising a school's profile among college presidents, whose views account for about 25% of school rankings
- Parents often set the parameters for where their kids can go to college, so make sure some outreach is aimed at them