Media Madness: More Panicky Reporting on College Borrowing

There was more panicky reporting on the subject of student debt last week in the New York Times article, A Generation Hobbled By the Soaring Cost of College, an installation in the newspaper’s Degrees of Debt series that purports to examine the implications of soaring college costs and the indebtedness of students and their families.

As Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson of the Chronicle of Higher Education reportThe New York Times made a huge statistical error in their overwrought article about higher education borrowing on Sunday. They reported that 94 percent of bachelor’s graduates leave college with educational debt. The correct number is around two-thirds. Few people will see the correction tucked into Wednesday’s Times – certainly not nearly the number who saw the lead sentence on the web version “Nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing money …”.

It’s worthwhile to read the rest of the analysis from Baum and McPherson as they lay out quite clearly what often happens when a complex aspect of the college admission process isn’t properly examined and vetted. As the Chroniclewriters point out, “This is not just a minor factual error. The erroneous idea that nearly all students borrow for college is already being widely repeated.” The lead of the online version of the article has now been changed and the statistics in the article corrected. But students and parents need to remember to read what is printed in the popular press with a critical eye.

Here’s a link to an earlier post on a Baum and McPherson article about losing perspective on college borrowing, as well as a thoughtful piece on borrowing from DePaul University’s Jon Boeckenstedt.

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