Aside from the traditional “back to school” stories that give students the basics about campus life, consider the following topics that could lead to some deeper digs or semester-specific pieces:
THE GRADUATING CLASS OF COVID: If my math is right, which is always a variable you should consider, many of the students graduating this semester will have spent their entire college careers under the cloud of COVID. They were sent home somewhere during the second semester of their freshmen year, spent sophomore year “distance learning” (or whatever the heck your school called it), had starts and stops their junior year and now are ready to graduate. (Again, assuming a four-year degree and that people got it done in four years.)
This one has all sorts of possibilities: You could look at data regarding grades to see how students who graduated four years prior compare to this crew. You could look at increases in requests for on-campus mental health assistance over the past four years, based in part on the insane crap taco life served these kids. You could do a piece on their views of college in terms of attachment to the school (folks who run the alumni foundation money-raising stuff always pull on those “give back to the ol’ campus” heartstrings when they call for cash). You could look into how many kids changed majors compared to four years prior (grownups in the workforce weren’t the only ones who used the pandemic for self-reflection and a chance to reprioritize their life goals).
The old Ronald Reagan line of “are you better off than you were four years ago” could drive a lot of coverage for this crew of COVID classmates.
CHATGPT’S IMPACT ON CURRICULUM: The tug-of-war between students who take shortcuts in completing their coursework and professors who try to catch cheaters is as old as college itself. I’d bet Socrates spent some time flipping through a few scrolls wondering why Plato’s teachings sounded so familiar. (And Plato probably did the same sleuthing on Aristotle…) Each iteration of technology brings with it another game of academic cat and mouse, as is the case with the introduction of ChatGPT.
Professors are already freaking out about the ways in which students have taken to this form of artificial intelligence to complete essay assignments and sidestep the opportunity to think for themselves. Some media folks have declared “The College Essay is Dead,” thanks to this technology and its ability to construct content.
It would be worth seeing if there are some countermeasures out there that are being built to balance the scales. (Essay cheats who relied on cutting and pasting from the internet had a pretty easy go of things until TurnItIn came on the scene, so it stands to reason we’ll see some form of technological response to ChatGPT.) It would also be interesting to see how professors are (or aren’t, given how old, grumpy and stubborn we tend to be) altering their curriculum in light of this latest development.
MEAL PLAN MONEY: Most colleges make a good sum of money by linking life in the residence halls to a meal-plan system of some sort. Students often think these systems are some kind of racket, in which they get overcharged for subpar food, pay for more meals than they actually consume and generally take it in the shorts financially because they have no choice. This year, however, the balance of the system could be shifting in students favor due to skyrocketing food prices.
(My own completely unscientific look at food costs involved me muttering to myself while shopping for holiday groceries and having my parents note they saw eggs that once cost less than a buck a dozen selling for $4.09. People who research this for a living have noted similar insanity that shows no signs of slowing down.)
If the school signed you up for X meals at Y cost back in September, how much trouble are they in at this point if that cost has gone up considerably? Even more, universities can be locked into pricing by governmental forces, making a quick shift difficult when faced with price spikes over the course of a year. (Universities also have a “keep the trains running on time” approach in a lot of ways, in which they stick to certain formulas over the course of years or decades, meaning they might not have changed their approach to meal plans in quite some time.)
What are the folks who run the cafeterias (or whatever we call them now) seeing in terms of expenses and how are they dealing with this? What are students seeing in terms of potential “shrinkflation” for their meal-plan dollars? Have schools made adjustments to how the meal plans work in reaction to these food-price hikes? (Local media outlets have also covered the ways in which these issues have hit local food banks, so if your school has one of those to combat food insecurity, that might be worth a peek as well.).
IN GOD WE TRUST. EVERYONE ELSE GETS VETTED: In following the story of Congressman-elect George Santos, my journalistic (some would say cynical) nature kicked in and had me thinking, “How many people at my university pulled a similar move to get their jobs?”
(If you haven’t been paying attention to the Santos situation, he got caught lying on his resume in some pretty spectacular ways, including claiming degrees he never earned, stating he worked for companies he never worked for and declaring he was the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. My favorite dodge of his was when he noted he never claimed to be Jewish but rather “Jew-ish.” Really. That happened.)
How does the university go about vetting its professors, instructors and other folks charged with your education? Universities run varying levels of background checks, ranging from deep dives to cursory glances. Where does yours sit? Also, people tend to get hired with certain requirements that need to be met at a later date. For example, a university might hire a doctoral student who has yet to defend their dissertation, with the requirement that the doctorate gets wrapped up within one year of employment. How often do people miss that goal and to what degree do universities hold them to account for that?
If my life in academia has taught me anything, it’s that we have a lot of self-important weasels roaming those ivory towers, so checking in on them might unearth a few “resume embellishments.”