On December 14, The New York Times published a lead editorial making the obvious point that, while getting more people to go to college is a good idea, it’s not enough by itself to reverse or to combat the consequences of the great economic inequality in the United States. Wanting, presumably, to juice up a rather bland argument, an editorial writer carelessly decided to drop in a misleading comparison: “Recent college graduates have about the same level of unemployment as the general population.”
This accurate little statement sidesteps the obvious facts that recent college graduates are a lot younger than the general population, and that younger members of the labor force have higher unemployment rates than older ones, largely because of lesser experience. When you compare people of similar ages, you find that those with more education uniformly have lower unemployment rates than those with less. When you do the most illuminating comparison, which is to compare the college-graduate population to the non-college-graduate population, you find that the unemployment rate for the college-graduate group is roughly half that of the others. (Comparing college graduates to the total population involves comparing college graduates to themselves.)
Moreover, many recent college graduates are looking for their first real job. Even comparing them to non-college-graduates of the same age means comparing them to people who have already been in the labor market for several years—many of whom entered the labor market before the economy collapsed. A comparison to recent high-school graduates entering the labor market now would be more enlightening.
Unfortunately, this careless and misleading sentence in the Times will have consequences. We have every confidence that some of those critics who seem to have adopted as a life goal talking other people’s children out of going to college will run with this sentence, and use it as evidence that even the liberal New York Times agrees with them that college doesn’t pay.