Our fascination with numbers stems from our faith that numbers are more precise than words. But journalists and public officials too often use numbers that are so simplified as to be misleading. The quick numbers on low salaries and high unemployment rates for liberal arts graduates, for example, suggest the opposite picture from what the details reveal. That is, new liberal arts graduates may earn less at first than classmates who majored in professional fields, but over time this gap closes. These glib statistics reveal more informative patterns just below the surface. Meanwhile, other simple numbers fester to create myths of their own.
Here’s one: Forty percent of all college students today are adults. Some policy officials assume this indicates a trend that will continue for a long time, and public policy therefore should make the education of 18-22 year olds a lower priority. But this increase is the direct result of one long-proven phenomenon—people return to college in a down economy; and one temporary phenomenon—the push by the White House to increase the number of Americans with college degrees. If college-going rates among traditional 18-year-olds remain high and the number of adults who could enroll in college-completion programs plummets, it will be even more important to educate traditional students who learn best in residential college settings.
A second myth arises from the complaint that the “sticker” price—often cited as $40,000-$50,000—is much more than a family can afford. This is a misleading figure because students at private institutions on average pay about half that amount. Moreover, the “net” price paid for college has actually decreased in recent years. Even the increases in sticker prices have been smaller than the increases in student aid. Policy officials and journalists who use the “sticker” price as their yardstick rarely acknowledge these closely related facts.
Here’s a third statistic with even more consequential misuse. Student debt is out of control and now totals $1 trillion. Some officials conclude from this solitary statistic that if colleges rolled back prices, all would be well. These observers ignore the massive increase in the number of Americans who attend college, the much larger percentage of low-income students in college today, and the increases in financial aid. By viewing this number as a sign of overcharging by colleges, observers then too readily jump from the $1 trillion figure to the erroneous conclusion that aid is not being awarded to the students who need it most.
Here are the facts. Twenty-eight percent of private college students have no debt at all. Another 29 percent of private college students have total debt that’s under $20,000, a small amount in relation to the premium on their lifetime earnings potential. Although all student borrowers have an average accumulated debt of $28,000, those who graduate have an average debt of only $18,000. Lest anyone conclude that aid awards favor academic superstars, the pattern indicates that aid is distributed in ways that track family income.
The privileged few?
The fourth myth to dispel is that only wealthy families can afford to send their children to independent colleges. In fact, independent colleges enroll students of all financial backgrounds, in about the same percentages as do public institutions for low- and middle-income students. Financial aid for students in these two income groups at both public and private colleges is generous—awarded so that the net price paid by students is less than half the total. The average family income of students at smaller, non-doctoral private colleges and universities is lower than the average family income of students at four-year public research universities. The amount of money private colleges commit to student aid is six times higher than what their students receive from federal aid programs.
In our era the way to win arguments is to cite statistical evidence. Yet the danger of misusing statistics is at least as great as it is with high-flown rhetoric. Basing policy decisions on a sound bite and a summary statistic won’t suffice.
Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges, www.cic.org.