EdStat Watch: Old vs. Young People with Degrees

I agree with the bulk of the Salon article We Must Hate Our Children. This stat, however, is pretty egregious stat abuse.

[Y]oung American adults are less likely than older Americans to have attended college. This has to be the first generation for whom that’s true. We’re putting the history of American progress in reverse.

To think about why that stat is wrong, consider the following made up but probably completely correct stat:

Young people are having less sex than ever. In fact, older adults were less likely to be virgins than 21-year olds!

I’m guessing you get it, but briefly, if college attendance was completely level in this country older adults would still be more likely to have more education, because older adults have both the education they got when young and the education they got when older, whereas the young — I think you get it. I won’t belabor the point.

The best comparison for this sort of argument is how, say, people in their late twenties today compare in degree holding to people in their late twenties 20 or 30 years ago. There are a number of ways in which this is not completely like-to-like (compositional shifts, for example), but it’s a pretty good measure.

What does that measure look like? Via the New York Times (which is via NCES data):


That’s right, educational attainment in America is skyrocketing. That’s not necessarily for good reasons. A lot of that growth explosion is to do with the recession and the growing unemployment divide between the college educated and high school grads. And the story is not unambiguous — clearly before the recession there was a long period of stagnation that might be related to both student loan rates and college cost.

But why does it matter, if I agree with the author in theory about the crippling effect on student loans? Quite simply, because getting it right matters. To solve a problem, you have to know what the shape of that problem is. Statistics like these distract us from solutions that may be available, and ultimately hurt students.

I used to do edstat debunking on here a lot; I’m going to start doing it again I think. If you find anything fishy out there, tweet me @holden.

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