Telling Truths with Numbers

For all of us who work in colleges and universities, we might be doing fine with our students but we have a long way to go when it comes to educating the public.Help Wanted

Data is at the very foundation of informed decision-making. Numbers do not lie. But when happens when people do not have data? Their guesses and estimates can tell us a great deal – sometimes almost as much as the data itself.

The New York Times Upshot (a series dedicated to analytic journalism) recently published a fascinating article on unemployment rates. In few words it deftly encapsulates higher education’s inability to convince the public of a basic value proposition: that a college education leads to jobs and economic success.

In two surveys, Americans were asked to estimate the unemployment rates of college graduates, ages 25 – 34. In the first open-ended survey, most estimated that between 20% and 30% of all graduates were unemployed. They also thought that it was probably more likely that high school graduates were earning more than college graduates. Surprised at the response, the team ran a second survey with a clue, anchoring the response with the fact that the unemployment rate for high school diploma holders is 7%. Still, half of the respondents thought that college graduates would have a higher rate of unemployment.

Most Americans do not equate a four-year college degree with employment.

It is no wonder that budgets for higher education are being trimmed, that colleges and universities have few elected champions, and we have lost public trust. If you believed that a college education did not help students with their jobs and careers, would you advocate for more funding?

The truth is vastly different.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for those that have a college degree, ages 25 or older, is 2.4%. For those that have earned an associate degree or have some college, the unemployment rate is 3.9%. The more education one obtains, the more likely one will be employed. It is not complicated. Yet that direct relationship between education and career advancement has somehow been lost on the American public.

To be fair, the numbers do not speak to the quality of the jobs. There are problems with wages, with regional differences, and with who gets which job. Many college degrees do not track directly into a career. College costs are too high and student debt is a national problem. All are fair criticisms. Nevertheless, we have to remember a fundamental truth: stay in school, get the degree, and students will be more much likely to have a job and to earn much more money over their lifetimes.

Many benefits would follow if we publicized these facts more effectively. It would help with the public, with politicians, and with our own understanding of the value of a college education. Most importantly, it would have a positive impact on our students, current and prospective. Students do not always know or appreciate the correlation between degree attainment and employment. More students would be encouraged to complete if they had a better understanding of the numbers.

So please, share, share and share some more. Let your friends, colleagues, neighbors and co-workers know: unemployment for college graduates ages 25+ is 2.4%. More than a few things are working well in American higher education.

David Potash

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