Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: adventures in journalism

May 17

The New York Times Swings and Misses

Sure signs of spring: baseball is back (and so is Vlad!), Ottawa is full of tulips, Quebec students are demonstrating in the buff and newspaper editors are turning their attention to student debt.

Exhibit A: the Globe’s spread on debt last Saturday (full disclosure: HESA supplied some of the data the Globe published).

Exhibit B: the cover of Sunday’s New York Times – “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College.”

Now, geeky wonks that we are, our first reaction to the appearance of higher education policy issues front and centre in the press gets us excited all out of proportion. And, nine times out of ten, our excitement turns to righteous indignation as soon as we read what’s written. For some inexplicable reason, journalists don’t tend to report stories the way we would want. So we eat breakfast. Outrage fades. We go on with our weekend.

But, as my insightful colleague Don Heller points out, there’s some crucial sleight of hand going on in that Times piece (and a major factual error) that, given the Times’s outsized influence, could seriously degrade the quality of public debate around higher education affordability. The Times chose to illustrate its story – which reported the average U.S. Bachelor’s-degree-holder debt (excluding those who have no debt) at $23,300 in 2011 – with the story of a hard-luck graduate of a private university marketing program with no prospects and $120,000 in debt.

Don points out the sequence of lousy decisions that have culminated in this student’s moving back in with her parents, and pinpoints how anomalous her story is. Moreover, it’s become clear that the Times misread survey data to conclude that 94% of graduates accumulate debt, when the actual figure is 62%. (The Times’s corrected the error on Wednesday.)

To its credit, the Globe chose to illustrate its piece about average student debt with a story about a graduate with… average student debt.

As we pointed out a few weeks ago, deriving meaning from the stats on student debt isn’t as obvious as it may seem. Newspaper stories that namecheck means and medians but focus on the 1% of graduates in dire straits ($120,000 in debt! “But when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that”!) royally undermine efforts to have a reasonable debate about access to education and student debt. By presenting the extreme as the norm, newspapers may get more hits, but they betray their public service mission.

We can surely expect better from the New York Times.

October 26

Oh for Heaven’s Sake (Western Canadian Edition)

You may have seen some reporting recently – say, here, here and here – to the effect that I’ve authored a report saying that the intellectual centre of gravity in Canada is moving westward at a rapid rate. You may also have seen me quoted saying things to the effect that it’s a result of sustained funding increases over the past decade in the west, while in Ontario even the major increases seen in McGuinty’s first term were barely able to cope with increased demand, let alone reverse the effects of decades of underfunding.

I do believe all of this (and can argue this point at length, if any of you want to start me off with a beer), but I do feel that I should make it clear that no such report exists.

Here’s what happened: an Ottawa Citizen reporter asked me what the major issues of the Ontario election were in post-secondary education and I pointed to the fact that none of the three parties had promised any increase in PSE funding during the next five years. When asked to describe the possible effects of this, I pointed to the general relative decline of Ontario universities compared to those in the three Western provinces. This last bit, somehow, became the focus of the article.

“Toronto consultant says west is best” is one of those headlines that are hard to resist on the Prairies, so the Calgary Herald and others picked up the story. Then one student newspaper got the wrong end of the stick and assumed that since stories were being published around comments from a think-tank president on a subject, said comments must have originated in a report of some kind. This led to a somewhat surreal CUP podcast in which two journalists discussed a non-existent report.

I thought this was pretty harmless until this new version started getting picked up by places like Globe Campus, at which point I thought “enough is enough.”

So, to be clear: there are a number of Western Canadian universities that rock pretty hard; most eastern universities are struggling to keep up and will continue to do so as they get smacked with the effects of deficit-cutting measures; the difference between east and west is partly money, partly demographics (strong universities are a lagging indicator of economic success, as any academic from China or India could tell you) and in a couple of specific instances it’s about exceptional leadership; and for all these reasons it’s quite fair to call this a shifting of the country’s intellectual centre of gravity.

Just don’t go looking for the report because there isn’t one. Sorry.