What drives me crazy about student debt articles

Someone recently tweeted a Malcolm Harris article from last year on student debt. Here is  the first line:

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans.

What the Project actually says:

We estimate that college seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt, up  six percent from the previous year.1

And if you follow that footnote:

1These figures reflect the average cumulative debt levels of 2008-09 bachelor’s degree recipients with loans at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges. See the Where the Numbers Come From and How We Use Them section for more information.

Emphasis mine.

What does this mean? It means that this line

The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans.

Is absolutely wrong. The average debt of this set of students with debt is $24,000. However, only about 66% of college students take on debt. When you average in those students that funded it fully through grants, scholarships, needs adjustments, and parental support, the real average is going to be somewhere closer to $16,000. Maybe less. I’d look it up, but that’s actually the job of the reporter writing the piece.

So in the first sentence, we start with a figure that is likely inflated by 50%. Not a whole lot of confidence there.

I continued reading however, until the third paragraph, in which he says:

What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?

I can actually answer that question for Mr. Harris — they aren’t. The 1.5% of loans that top six figures don’t go to teenagers. They go to medical school and law school students, and a smattering of other grad school students. Only 3 out of every 1,000 college seniors graduate with over $100,000 in debt. That’s three out of a thousand. It’s difficult to communicate the rarity of that, but let’s put it this way — if you are a man, you have about a 3 in 1,000 chance of being as tall as Kobe Bryant. Talking about the problem of six figure undergraduate debt is about as informed as referring to Kobe as a man of average height. Three in 1,000 is also about your chance of dying through assault by firearm. Though, frankly, the average American is slightly *more* likely to be murdered with a gun than the average U.S.  college senior is to graduate with $100,000 or more in debt.

In fact, 90% of graduates graduate with under $40,000 in debt, and those that accumulate more than that are far more likely to have gone to expensive private or for profit schools. A full twenty-five percent of those graduating with over $40,000 in debt took six years to finish.

These things matter. I haven’t bothered to read the rest of the article, and why should I? I can have no confidence that the author has even basic facts correct. The world he paints in the first paragraphs is one where graduating student debt is 50% higher than it actually is, and one where six-figure undergraduate debt is a problem (it isn’t).

The more important statistics, some of which show that a major part of the student debt problem is a four-year completion problem, go unremarked. The low rates of $40k+ debt among state schools gets no attention, even though increasing access to those schools represents an potentially attractive solution to the problem. Reforming graduate school loans for law school, a major contributor to six-figure debt, doesn’t even make the list. Neither does the bump in $100k loans among 30 and 40 year olds, possibly indicating, among other things, that many people that don’t graduate with $100k loans get there over time through absurd rates of interest on loans guaranteed against discharge by the federal government.

I’m not saying we don’t have a student debt problem or a college cost problem.  We do. But if we want to solve that problem, the details matter. And the people that don’t bother to get the details right (or at the very least to retract the details they get wrong) are not worth your time. Start demanding more careful treatment of student debt numbers, and stop reading people that refuse to provide that level of care.


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