Scott Jaschik is the editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, a daily online publication covering college and university news. Previously, he served as editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. The (Duke) Chronicle spoke with Jaschik about the increasing popularity of online courses and current issues facing higher education.

The Chronicle: What inspired you to work in higher education news?

Scott Jaschik: I was a student journalist, and when I graduated from college, I realized that a lot of the people who had graduated ahead of me were working at small local papers, and they were not that happy. So I did a different type of search and looked for specialized publications and ended up at one in higher education. But I wouldn’t have devoted my career to this if I didn’t find the particular specialty exciting and very important—I wouldn’t have done this for any specialty. I think higher education intersects with every part of the world, every important issue in American society—it matters.

TC: What was the motivation behind your decision to leave The Chronicle of Higher Education to start Inside Higher Ed?

SJ: With a few colleagues, I’d been noticing changes in journalism and in higher ed. In journalism, more people were getting their news online instead of in print, and we noticed communities being formed where by removing the price barrier you could build a much larger audience. Higher education was changing in that what mattered wasn’t just what went on at elite institutions but what went on at institutions all over the world—at community colleges, at all kinds of other places. We built Inside Higher Ed with a model that would work for these new audiences. So we’re free and online, and by being so, we get an audience that would never pay to read The Chronicle [of Higher Education].

TC: What do you consider to be the biggest issues in higher education today?

SJ: One would be the way higher ed is responding to the economic changes in our society—basically since the economic collapse in fall of 2008. This has been hugely traumatic for much of higher education. The sector that I think has recovered most quickly and most completely is elite private universities, which includes Duke. Most other sectors are still struggling to figure out a new business model that will work for them. There’s also a huge coming debate over affirmative action, and right now there’s a very hot debate over MOOCs—massively open online courses—and the way they are changing higher ed.

TC: What sort of future do you see for distance learning and MOOCs?

SJ: Well, you need to really separate out MOOCs, like Coursera, from distance learning. At least as the MOOCs were introduced, they generally don’t award credit. A lot of distance ed courses do award credit, and a lot of distance ed courses have direct involvement between the student and professor. In MOOCs, you have a professor who might be teaching 200,000 people and never interact with the students. Another key difference is that most of the growth in distance education hasn’t been from elite institutions. MOOCs, though, have top universities getting involved. They’re really quite new, and the jury’s still out on them—I think they might be a really big deal, but we haven’t seen that yet.

TC: Regarding affirmative action, how do you anticipate colleges reacting to Fisher v. Texas?

SJ: Well, since there hasn’t been a decision yet, schools have got a little time, I suppose, to figure it out. I think there’s a really good chance that Texas will lose the court case, and that will pose quite a challenge for colleges with competitive admissions. I’m actually surprised that most colleges haven’t been talking about it in public about the possibility that they’ll need to change their admissions systems. I think it could be very traumatic for a lot of universities that pride themselves on their diversity, that could disappear. If leading colleges and universities are forced to not consider race and still want the same levels of diversity, they’ll have to look at things like how much they value standardized test scores and how much preference they give to students who come from better high schools as opposed worst. At the same time, there’s a lot of interesting discussion about how this won’t affect all minority students the same. It would not shock me if, in a post-affirmative action world, Asian enrollment at elite universities went up.

TC: How do you view college rankings, such as those done by U.S. News & World Report?

SJ: We write a lot about the rankings in terms of the fact that people try to game the system, certainly they’re important to many people, and I think it’s important to subject them to scrutiny, but I don’t consider them particularly valid. People at institutions like Duke that consistently do well in the rankings sometimes get upset when I say that.... But the rankings suggest that something big happened for Duke to go from eight to seven from one year to the next—that’s just not how universities work. The other thing the rankings do is they very strongly favor certain kinds of missions and certain kinds of money, so that the best-ranked universities are the universities with the largest endowments. They encourage a certain kind of college and university. An institution, say, that is not competitive in admissions but aspires to train the best school teachers in Appalachia—that university would not do well in US News, but perhaps they’re doing more for the world than the top ten. So I just don’t view the rankings as saying who’s, quote, “best.”

TC: Inside Higher Ed has very diverse coverage, with articles on community colleges alongside those on standard four-year universities. Why have such breadth in your coverage?

SJ: It’s something we’re very proud of. If you look at many of the hot issues in American higher education today, they’re actually playing out more at community colleges than at elite private universities. Right now, President Barack Obama has a goal, and many states have this goal of significantly increasing the proportion of the population that gets at least a year of college. And when you’re talking about people who wouldn’t go to college at all but are now looking to go—that’s the community college sector. Community colleges are much more diverse than other universities, they have many more minority students, many more first-generation students, so when you’re talking about the colleges that change lives—and I guess this sounds like I’m insulting Duke, and I don’t mean to—it’s the community colleges. There are tons of students at Duke who are Harvard rejects, and guess what? Their life isn’t over, they’re doing just great. And the students who applied to Duke and didn’t get in, their lives aren’t over either, they’re at great colleges somewhere. The community colleges are the institutions that make the difference between somebody getting a higher education or not. That is what changes American society. If you look at who’s transforming lots of lives, it’s community colleges, on a level that elite universities just can’t. A student who couldn’t aspire to go to [The University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill can go to Wake [Technical Community College] for two years—North Carolina has a very good community college system—and then transfer to UNC, even though they didn’t have a chance of going there originally. So when it works well, the system is great.

TC: In light of the recession, some people have begun to ask if college is worth the cost. What do you think of that?

SJ: The answer to the question is yes. There’s a lot of data showing that you’re better off with an associate’s degree than with a high school diploma, that you’re better off with a bachelor’s degree than an associate’s degree, better off with a bachelor’s degree than a master’s degree. Post 2008, the gains are smaller than they were in better economic times, but the gains are still strong across all fields. Everyone likes to write stories about Jodie who studied philosophy at New York University, and now she’s a barista at Starbucks—have you read that story? It’s everywhere!—but you know what? In five years, Jodie will be better off than if Jodie had not gone to college. There’s just no data—census data, IRS data— that refutes that. Having said that, in a recession it’s very dangerous to borrow huge sums of money. The questions about worth come in much more with students who are borrowing a lot of money without understanding the loan obligations and without having set career goals. So to them I would say, “Don’t borrow $25,000 a year,” but that doesn’t mean “Don’t go to college.”