Clarification please: Associated Press adds to confusion in private higher ed story (updated)

This is not rocket science. (Or maybe it is? See update at the end of this piece.)

For a week or so, I have been watching to see if editors at the Associated Press were going to run a correction about a story about some fine print in the Republican tax bill. The headline on that story stated: "Senate votes to block special break for conservative college."

Note that the word "college" is singular.

That "fact" was at the heart of the debate, as shown in the overture for this hard-news story:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats ... successfully blocked a provision in the Republicans’ sweeping tax bill designed to give a special tax break to a conservative college in Michigan.
Democrats said the tax break was designed to help just one politically-connected school: Hillsdale College in southern Michigan.
“I can’t find anybody else in America who benefits from this particular provision. That doesn’t strike me as right,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “It feels like this is a very limited provision written for a very special person.”

The key fact here is that Hillsdale College does not accept federal funds, including funds linked to scholarships and student aid. The basic idea is that government money will inevitably have strings attached. Thus:

The tax package would impose a new tax on investment income earned by some private universities and colleges. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., added a provision exempting certain colleges that don’t receive federal funds. Democrats said Hillsdale was the only college that would benefit.

This raises a simple question: Is this story accurate when it claims -- quoting Democrats alone -- that no other colleges refuse federal funds?

How would this be framed in a Journalism 101 class, in the age of the Internet? Perhaps we should turn to a search engine and type in a set of words that looks something like this: "Colleges that don't accept federal funds."

That wasn't hard, as it? You can click here to see the results.

For starters, there is this site that features a nice, easy-to-use, 2017 list of "List of Colleges That Don’t Take Federal Money." That will get you 10 colleges, although I have heard people discuss more than two dozen.

That same search will get editors a piece at The Atlantic with this headline: "The Controversial Reason Some Religious Colleges Forgo Federal Funding."

Note that the headline includes the word "colleges" -- plural. There is this handy fact paragraph in that analysis feature, which mentions Hillsdale and then adds:

Among the other schools that don’t participate in Title IV financial-aid programs are Grove City College in Pennsylvania; Christendom College in Virginia; Pensacola Christian College in Florida; Patrick Henry College in Virginia; and tiny Wyoming Catholic College and Gutenberg College in Oregon, which have 150 and 22 students, respectively. At least one Orthodox Jewish institution, Yeshiva Toras Chaim Talmudic Seminary of Denver, also opts out of Title IV, according to documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Hechinger Report.

By the end of the rather short AP report, readers who have spend a day or two in a mainstream newsroom may be tempted to ask: Why did the journalists who handled this story only talk to Democrats, when gathering basic facts? Surely there are some Republicans -- maybe even a few Catholic or evangelical Protestant Democrats -- who realize that there are other schools that decline government money?

It would appear that politics (#surprise) played a role in the AP's singular focus on Hillsdale, a school that in the past has raised some eyebrows with it's strong, largely secular definition of "conservatism."

Politics? Check out this reference:

Democrats complained that some well-known conservatives have connections to the school, including Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Graduates include Erik Prince, who is DeVos’ brother and the founder of the government contractor once known as Blackwater, and former Rep. Chris Chocola of Indiana. Chocola once headed the conservative Club for Growth, an advocacy group. ...

So, were there Republicans who were thinking about Hillsdale College when they fought for this part of the bill? It's safe to assume that there were. However, were there other legislators who were thinking about other schools in their own districts? It's safe to assume that there were.

Finally, were there cultural and religious conservatives who were thinking ahead, knowing that battles over religion and sexuality could lead to leaders at other schools in a variety of religious traditions needing to consider this option in the future?

Editors at AP might want to investigate that angle, if they retain any interest in this coast-to-coast topic.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting and important reader comment on the original version of this post. We always appreciate input of this kind.

The House version of the endowment tax hits colleges with $250K or more per student, which included about 70 institutions. Hillsdale has a ~$500 million endowment and ~1500 students, which is a bit more than $300K per student. So Toomey's proposal, I believe, was in response to that amount -- and I'm pretty sure that, of the few institutions who refuse federal funds, only Hillsdale qualified as one of those 70 institutions. The new amount, $500K per student, doesn't apply to Hillsdale anyway.

Let's go back to the crucial paragraph in the AP report.

The tax package would impose a new tax on investment income earned by some private universities and colleges. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., added a provision exempting certain colleges that don’t receive federal funds. Democrats said Hillsdale was the only college that would benefit.

So there is the question: Why Hillsdale alone? That's crucial, since AP focused on a highly detailed political claim.

The AP story included zero information about the bill's language focusing on the size of a school's endowment and student body. When you read that story, it still -- to me -- appears that the Democrats quoted in this story, and thus AP, didn't realize that there are quite a few other private schools that don't accept federal funds.

Obviously, the AP team needed to (a) mention the details in the bill about endowments, etc., (b) mention that there are other schools that don't take federal money (and that number could be rising) and (c) find out if there are other private schools (most are religious colleges) that have fit this specific language about endowments.

Someone might want to call the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and see if it has some facts on that. Ditto for my old stomping grounds, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

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