Thursday, February 07, 2019

Get Me Rewrite!

This week the South Jersey Times published an unsigned editorial that, if taken seriously, could do real harm.  It piles misunderstandings, simplistic readings of data, and stereotypes on top of each other in the name of, well, it’s not entirely clear.  If I were the editor, I would have sent it back for a rewrite.

It’s ostensibly a hard-headed, realistic, data-driven look at the “bang for the buck” that students get at various colleges throughout New Jersey.  It draws on data from the College Scorecard published by the US Department of Education. After noting that Stevens Tech and Princeton University are outliers, it turns its attention to everyone else:

Below the top two, scorecard readers may be confounded by many schools with annual tuition in the $15,000-$20,000 range, and median salaries in the $40,000-$50,000 range. It’s like trying to determine which package of paper towels is the better buy at Walmart, the 12-pack with 104 sheets per roll, or the 16-pack with 92 sheets.”

Okay, so that’s not promising.  Where does it go from there?

“Community college graduation rates are absolutely dismal...If two-year schools are ever to be the nucleus of tuition-free or debt-free subsidy programs, they must get those washout percentages down.  This is largely wasted tuition money, whether it comes from the students or the taxpayers.”

Leave aside for a moment the idea that students aren’t taxpayers.  (They are.) And leave aside for the moment that other states managed to create tuition-free community colleges without first improving graduation rates.  In fact, if Tennessee is any indication, going tuition-free actually improved success rates, rather than the other way around. But forget that for a moment.

As the recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke foundation reminds us, most community colleges who transfer on to four-year colleges and graduate with bachelor’s degrees didn’t graduate their community colleges first.  They transferred prior to graduation. The student who did a year at Brookdale before moving on to Rutgers and graduating shows up in our numbers as a “washout.” But the student didn’t fail. If anything, she got a great deal and a great start.  And as the JKC report documents, students who start at community colleges and transfer “up” actually outperform students who start at four-year colleges. But you wouldn’t know that from either the scorecard or the editorial.

Those students skew the salary figures, too.  If Jenna left Brookdale for Rutgers after a year, graduated in three more, and got a job paying $60,000 per year, she shows up in Rutgers’ salary figures and our dropout figures.  We don’t get any credit for her subsequent earnings. (To be fair, Rutgers doesn’t get credit in its graduation rate, either, since transfer students don’t count.) The money she saved -- both as a student and a taxpayer -- doesn’t count, but her decision to transfer does, negatively. That’s just silly.

Okay, a sympathetic reader might sigh, it gets community colleges wrong.  But what about the bigger picture?

Speaking of lowered expectations, the College Scorecard should end any notion that a student can exit Princeton or the New Jersey Institute of Technology, undergrad degree in hand, expecting to make north of $100,000 in just a few years. Use that calculation for how soon you can pay back crushing student debt, and disappointment will be in store.”

Sigh.  “Crushing student debt” isn’t crushing for most graduates.  The default rate on student loans is highest among those whose debt is lowest, and lowest among those whose debt is highest.  That’s because what looks like a debt problem is actually a dropout problem. If you have your “undergrad degree in hand,” it’s unlikely that you’ll have an issue.  The real issue isn’t with Princeton grads or Brookdale grads; it’s with dropouts. Actual dropouts, not the students who transferred early, got degrees, and got good jobs that don’t count in our numbers.

Conflating high debt loads with risk of default, as the piece does, is the kind of intuitive leap that is easy to make if you don’t actually know the field.  It’s also flat wrong. If we want to get student loans under control, the first thing we should do is adequately fund community and state colleges so they can provide the staff and support to get students through.  The ASAP program at CUNY stands as proof of that. Here in New Jersey, the Equal Opportunity Fund program stands as proof of that. Tennessee’s free community college program -- enacted by a Republican governor in a red state -- stands as proof of that.  There’s plenty of evidence, for those who bother to look.

The danger in publishing such an uninformed piece is that someone who doesn’t know any better might mistake its confident shortcuts for actual information, and draw destructive conclusions.  For that matter, the same could be said of the scorecard itself.

As poorly reasoned as the piece is, I have to agree with the decision to publish it unsigned.  I can’t imagine someone wanting to own it. My piece is signed, I work in the field, and my phone works.  A well-placed call before the next editorial could save the rewrite desk a lot of time.