Evening cable news programs rarely discuss college affordability issues, and when they do, they even more rarely feature guests who present relevant, recent personal experiences. In a recent analysis of evening cable news programming, Media Matters found an apparent lack of student or borrower guests participating in these cable news conversations relating to college affordability, while the majority of guests were white, male, and 35 or older. By limiting the demographic diversity of guests, media are shutting out the voices of those most affected by these issues.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed an entire year of evening cable news programming and found that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC together spent just 2 hours and 22 minutes airing substantial discussion of topics related to college affordability. In those discussions, networks invited disproportionately white, male guests who were 35 or older. Among 127 total guests participating in these discussions, just 6 percent were identified as current students and only 2 percent discussed their own current or recent experiences borrowing money to pay for college. In short, the voices dominating evening cable news seem to not be those of the individuals most affected by today’s skyrocketing college costs or unmanageable student loan burdens. By inviting fewer women, young people, people of color, students, and borrowers, to participate in these segments, networks are limiting the substance of college affordability discussions and depriving viewers of an accurate picture of college costs and student debt.
Across all three networks, 58 percent of guests participating in discussions about college affordability were men. However, research shows that women are more likely to take out student loans than men, and that women need college degrees to access employment opportunities more than men do. The gender pay gap also makes getting out of debt all the more difficult for women, in particular for black and Hispanic women, even as women dedicate a higher percentage of their earnings toward paying off that debt.
Seventy-three percent of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability topics were white. Twenty percent of guests were black, 6 percent were Hispanic, and 4 percent were Asian-American. (Two percent of guests were coded for an undetermined race, and multiracial guests were coded for multiple races or ethnicities as applicable.)
Yet black and Hispanic students, borrowers, and families experience the financial strain of attending college more acutely at every step in the process -- from the initial decision about what type of higher education to pursue, to borrowing and making loan payments, to struggling for financial security decades after college attendance. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources for financial aid, while black and low-income students, in particular, are more likely to take out loans to pay for school and to have higher loan balances. Greater financial strain while attending college can also lead black and Hispanic students to drop out at higher rates, which in turn impacts their ability to find employment and pay down even small amounts of debt.
More than three-quarters of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability were 35 or older -- and 40 percent were 51 or older (of those guests whose ages were publicly available). Across all three networks, only 6 percent of guests discussing college affordability issues were identified as students, and only 2 percent -- three guests across all networks for the entire year studied -- discussed their own personal or recent experiences borrowing to pay for higher education.
Though it is possible that more guests are currently paying off student or parent education loans or perhaps are enrolled in college currently than were coded in Media Matters’ analysis, those guests didn’t talk about such experiences during their appearances. Overwhelmingly, the discussions of topics like rising college costs, borrowing to pay for school, and student loan burdens did not include guests sharing relevant, first-hand experiences paying for college in recent years.
Yet study after study highlights the “many crises of student loans,” detailing how today’s complex system of higher education and the debt-based system most use to pay for it are shutting out low-income students, veterans, and other groups of Americans who are often already marginalized in media coverage, and leaving those who attend college but do not earn degrees and students who attend for-profit colleges even further behind. Perhaps greater overall representation of students and borrowers -- or better, students or borrowers from specific groups that are feeling the financial squeeze of student debt most -- would give evening cable news viewers a more complete understanding of how college affordability policy proposals might work and who they might affect.
A July poll from Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of registered voters say education is a “very important” issue for their 2016 presidential vote, and 84 percent said the same about the economy. Rising college costs and the impacts of student debt burdens are significant issues that fall in the intersection of the two topics. Evidence shows student debt can impact personal wealth, delay homeownership, affect personal decisions to marry or start a family, and that it has “cripple[d] retail sales growth.”
Student debt’s impacts on the long-term financial well-being of borrowers are reverberating throughout the economy, and they are likely felt more acutely by those individuals with the most unmanageable debt burdens. But a viewer who relies on evening cable news programming to understand the causes and impacts of the student debt crisis, or to learn about possible solutions, might not know that at all.
Images created by Sarah Wasko.