Higher Education Strategy Associates

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.

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