13 June 2011

College Cost Stats

College and statistics... what crazy games you can play with these two topics.  Today I read an article (short) and watched a film (long and best watched in multiple sittings) about the rising cost of college.  On the surface, these two seem to agree with one another, but their stats disagree tremendously, undermining their whole argument.

No one doubts that the cost of college is rising, although the relative rates (especially versus income) are hotly debated.  The film argues that college is no longer worth the investment; the article only opines that colleges are pricing themselves out of the middle class' ability to pay, with no mention of return on investment.

Both offer some interesting numbers:

  • The film says the average cost of college is $27k per year, which must be some sort of public/private average (and, in my not researched opinion, not weighted for enrollment).  The article says the average public institution costs $6,500 per year.  There's an obvious choice here, in my opinion.  If the private school you're considering doesn't provide you a value equal to the difference in tuition, go to a public school.
  • Both the film and the article claimed that the Department of Labor's statistic about college graduates making $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes is bogus, but neither offered an alternative amount or percentage.  Whatever the difference, I have to assume that it's more than $26,000, the cited average cost of four years of undergraduate work.  This seems to make college worth it, financially speaking.
  • Both the film and the article state that the median household income in the US is about $33,000.  This statistic (cited in the article) comes from the IRS's 2008 data.  Interesting, the US census bureau disagrees.  And by disagrees, I mean, wildly disagrees.  Their data says the median household income is about $52,000, a 57% increase.  I imagine $19k a year would make a difference in affordability for a lot of things, including that $6,500 college bill.
  • Neither the article nor the film looked at grants or scholarships.  I've seen numbers that show how little they cover, but surely even a small cost offset should be mentioned.
  • The film talked some about the total cost of college, including loan interest and lost income.  This is a worthwhile topic, but again, their stats are skewed (they assumed 6 years to finish an undergrad degree, taking the full 10 years to pay off loans, and no income at all while in school).
  • The article starts with an incredibly misleading graph.  It has its axis on two different sides and makes it appear that college costs exponentially more than the median household income, when in fact it's about 19.7% (according to their numbers).
Statistics are a funny game.  Numbers never outright lie, but they can be incredibly misleading.  It's hard to accuse most sources of skewing numbers; these institutions probably just found figures that agreed with their values and stopped looking.  Opinion pieces like these two underlie the need for the public at large to understand the specifics of what a statistic says, its validity in making generalizations and forecasts, and where it is correctly (and incorrectly) applied.

Have you seen any funny statistics lately?  Do they bother you as much as they bother me?

1 comment:

  1. Yay, rising college costs and relatively little payoff!! Twitch. Twitch. Admittedly, yes, bad statistics, but it still does speak to something that is becoming more and more prevalent where issues of college degrees are concerned. Just getting a bachelor's degree is the new equivalent of having a high school diploma. So not only are new college students combating rising costs, we also get the extra added bonus of having to prolong a college education just to stay ahead. Which may or may not actually be helpful once we get out into the real world and begin to search for jobs. Yay. Okay, sorry, worried soon-to-be college student will now get off her soapbox.

    I totally agree with you on the public vs. private institutions issue, though. It's how I've planned my college admissions. I'm applying to some fairly costly private universities and am certainly looking for all the scholarships I can, but if that won't be enough to keep me from getting saddled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loans when I can practically have my education paid for at a public university, I'll absolutely do my undergrad and possibly my graduate degree at the college which is going to offer me the best options financially speaking. Anyone who doesn't is absolutely out of their minds. A name on a diploma is not worth paying off those ridiculously high costs for years to come, especially with no guaranteed place in the job market.