More Sloppy Higher-Ed Journalism

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past several years knows that things are harder for college graduates than they once were. Higher education writing that exaggerates this point with the help of misleading factoids consequently leaves readers less informed than they were before. Writers are especially to be blamed when the statistics upon which they rely have long been known to be misleading.

Consider this widely circulated opinion piece from Australia’s The Age. In an effort to demonstrate that paying “tens of thousands of dollars” to attend a good university “increasingly . . . defies economic good sense,” Paul McGeough unearths this statistic: “an Associated Press analysis of date (sic) for 2011 found that 53.6 per cent of graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or in menial jobs that did not require their degree.”

When the Associated Press put out this shocking statistic, it was very widely circulated. It even played a small part in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Responsible journalists largely took it to be true.

But there is no excuse for using the number today. Jordan Weissman, Nathaniel Beck, and others showed it to be misleading a year ago.

The Associated Press neglected to mention that it counted as unemployed students who had returned to school. By its reckoning, a graduate who is attending Harvard Law is as unemployed as a graduate conducting a job search out of Mom and Dad’s basement.

Moreover, McGeough mischaracterizes the Associated Press story, which nowhere argues that students who are employed in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree are doing “menial labor.” As Weissmann points out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers a 2 year degree sufficient for a registered nurse. But registered nursing is hardly menial labor and median pay is $64,570 per year. Anthony Carnevale adds that “over 50 percent of nurses already have a four-year or graduate degree and . . . those nurses have more responsibilities and higher earnings than nurses with associate degrees once they get on the job.” A bachelor’s degree continues to earn a substantial wage premium, even in jobs that do not technically require such a degree.

My point is not to deny that college graduates are doing worse than they used to do. They are doing worse, though when McGeough tells us that the unemployment rate of young college graduates in the U.S. is 8.8% he should mention that the rate for young high school graduates is, by the same way of reckoning, 29.9%. Nor is my point that analysts who insist that college is not for everybody are wrong, though I think they overemphasize that common sense claim.

My point is that if you’re going to argue that it defies economic good sense to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend a good college, thereby discouraging people from attending, you had better not rely on a three year old statistic whose accuracy has been convincingly and repeatedly denied. That’s irresponsible.


  • Jonathan Marks

    Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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