Sep 21, 2019

What matters to college students today

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo. Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Axios contacted editors at 120 U.S. college student newspapers and asked them, “What matters most to students today?”

What they’re saying: Race, diversity and inclusion were by far the most discussed issues among student editors across public and private universities, community colleges, liberal arts schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and religious universities in all 50 states.

  • Events like an image of a brutalized Dora the Explorer found in a course presentation at Vanderbilt University, racist notes left in public spaces at St. Olaf College and a student live-streaming white nationalist thoughts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have dominated the pages of student papers.

But the concern about race and inclusion reflects decades or centuries of history — not just isolated events.

  • At the University of Virginia, where the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally riled the nation in 2017, students are still “trying to reckon with what it means to go to a school built by enslaved people and founded by a slave-owner,” says Gracie Kreth.
    • The town and university continue to debate whether to remove a Civil War monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
  • At Georgetown University, Maya Gandhi tells Axios that campus conversation was dominated last semester by a referendum aimed to establish a fee for students that would benefit the descendants of 272 slaves sold by Georgetown in 1838.

Other issues of common concern include mental health services, sexual misconduct, gun violence and public safety.

  • “Sexual misconduct is the issue most consistently discussed on campus,” University of Rochester’s Wil Aiken tells Axios, especially after allegations against a professor eventually led to the resignation of the school’s president in 2018.

There were also issues unique to each school:

  • Telescope construction: At the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, the biggest controversy is the plan to build the Thirty Meter Telescope atop dormant volcano Mauna Kea, which some argue is sacred land, according to Chavonnie Ramos.
  • DACA students losing funding: Joe Gidden tells Axios that Pima Community College has seen a decline in DACA students since the Arizona State Supreme Court struck down in-state tuition for DACA recipients last year.
  • Apathy: “Notre Dame has an apathy problem,” a columnist wrote in The Observer at the University of Notre Dame — setting off a campus-wide discussion. But “everyone here certainly cares about football, if that counts,” Kelli Smith says.

What’s next: When asked what the biggest concern was for the next generation of students, editors repeatedly raised the problem of rising tuition and student debt.

  • For the University of Oregon’s Michael Tobin, rising costs lead to existential questions like, “Is college really worth it? If I may not be able to get a job?”

Climate change is equally concerning on campuses. Just yesterday, millions of students walked out for the global climate strike.

  • "Climate change has cast everyone in a sense of placeless-ness,” says Davidson College’s Katie Walsh. “Where are we to go, when perhaps there will be nowhere left to go?”

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