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How to Lie With Education Data, Part 1

The well-known quotation is usually attributed to Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But even that attribution is probably untrue.

No matter who said it first, the point is clear. We’ve all seen data used, either intentionally or unintentionally, to misrepresent or distort the truth.

A couple of examples popped up in the past week, specifically related to the cost of college and the burden of student debt. We’ll take a look at one example here, and another, focused on debt settlement, in our next post.

In a quasi-satirical post at Forbes, Ben Taylor took time to track down “17 Things You Could Buy for the Cost of a College Education.” The headline is an Upworthy-worthy example of click-bait.

(For the record, Mr. Taylor is not a journalist; he is a senior marketing manager at FindTheBest, a data-research company. His column was a “contributor” post at Forbes.)

Mr. Taylor says at the outset of the post that he wants to figure out if his college education—which left him, by his own account, “in my parents’ spare bedroom, with a bachelor’s degree in English and thousands in student loans”—was worth it.

“I want to know exactly what I gave up by choosing four years in a classroom instead of four years practicing my golf swing or riding the lifts at Telluride,” Mr. Taylor writes (emphasis his).

After estimating the total cost of a college education at a four-year public college for an in-state student at $104,880, Mr. Taylor lists 17 purchases that cost the same amount. The list includes:

  • Three bottles of every award-winning whiskey at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits competition (1,149 total bottles).
  • A Tesla Model S and 66 years’ worth of charge power.
  • Well over 2,000 rounds of golf.
  • A trip to every amusement park in America—18 times each.
  • 233 pairs of Beats by Dre Pro headphones.

The post is meant to be funny, but it reveals an underlying problem that muddles the very serious conversation about the rising cost of college and student debt: mistakenly equating the cost of college with the value of college.

Just because a college degree and a new electric car cost the same does not mean that they are of equal value. While the value of a car depreciates the moment you take it on the road—just as most tangible items, with the exception of real estate, depreciate with use—the value of a college degree appreciates. You can’t say that about hundreds of headphones or thousands of amusement-park rides. Talk about zero return on investment.

Which, Mr. Taylor says, was the entire point of his post. He ends it saying:

Okay: time for a little perspective. Compared to a high school diploma, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says my college degree will earn me roughly $457 more per week over the long run—that’s over $1 million more by the time I’m 65. With any luck, I’ll be flying my brand new ICON A5 to Vegas in just under 40 years.

“For me, there’s a certain tone that accompanies the whole article,” Mr. Taylor said in an interview. “I was trying to tap into the irresponsible high-school grad who thinks, ‘Gee, I don’t need to go to college, I can buy all these luxurious items.’”

The problem with “irresponsible high-school grads,” though, is that it’s not hard to imagine that the exact opposite of the intended message will come across: Skip college! Buy a fancy car instead.

And to a student who is overwhelmed by the “sticker shock” of college, Mr. Taylor’s post could serve to reinforce the idea that college is a luxury item, as out of reach as 233 pairs of high-end headphones.

Mr. Taylor exacerbates the general misunderstanding of the cost of college by excluding financial aid from his calculation of the average cost of four years of in-state tuition, fees, and other expenses at a public university. That causes him to vastly overstate the cost of college.

Despite everything we know about the problems with average net price for determining how much a single student might pay at a single institution, for the purpose of estimating the average total cost of attending college, it would have been a better measure.

According to Department of Education data, the overall average net price at a four-year public institution in 2011-12 was $12,410, which would put the total cost for four years (without taking into account increases in tuition, which Mr. Taylor also ignores) at $49,640, not $104,880. At four-year private nonprofit colleges, the average student receiving financial aid paid $23,540, which amounts to $94,160 over four years, or 10 percent less than Mr. Taylor’s estimate.

It goes without saying that some students pay much more while others pay much less. But an honest look at the cost of college—even a lighthearted one—should be careful to use the right data with the proper framing. Otherwise, readers could come away thinking college costs twice as much as it does and offers no more value than 18 trips to every amusement park in America. And while that might not be a damned lie, it’d almost certainly be a damned shame.

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