Statistics That Tell the Wrong Story: Politicians and Journalists Too Often Make Their Case with Faulty Facts

Article excerpt

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.

DEMOGRAPHICS

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.

STICKER SHOCK

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.

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STUDENT DEBT

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. …