Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Can't Education Reporters Read?

Last week The Delta Cost Project, a non-profit that studies the cost of higher education, released a detailed report on revenue and expenses at American colleges and universities over ten years: "Trends in College Spending, 1998-2008." The report broke down the various sources of revenue, the different activities on which money was spent, and most interestingly the rate of increase of spending on each separate category. If tuition went up X percent, and university expenses went up Y percent, how much did each category of expenses go up? It's a smart, interesting and badly needed approach, but apparently too complicated for reporters who cover education to figure out.

Education reporters at important mainstream institutions, including The New York Times and Bloomberg News, blew the story in various ways. They didn't blow it because they misunderstood the context, or the complicated back story, or the subtle implications. They blew the story because they did not understand the plain language of the report.

The only other possibility is that they blew the story because they didn't actually bother reading the report. They already know what they think about education policy, and rigorously-researched data can't change their minds. Even if they physically read the report, they could not or would not process any information that didn't fit their pre-existing conclusions.

Here's the basic takeaway of the report:
1) Higher education prices continue to soar, vastly in excess of inflation and evidently even faster than prices of prescription drugs.
2) The costs for colleges and universities do continue to rise, and the amount they spend on everything, controlled for inflation, rose. However spending on actual instruction (mostly on teacher salaries) rose much more slowly than spending on other categories. So between 1998 and 2008 the amount that major private universities pay to put teachers in the classrooms went up 22 percent, but spending on administration and on student services each went up 36 percent. Big public universities spent 10% more on teaching in 2008 than they spent in 1998, but the amount they spent on administration had gone up 20%.
3) Private universities, with bigger budgets, spent much, much more on teaching than public universities did, or than community colleges did.
4) However, the cost of attending a four year public university went up a lot faster than the cost of attending a four year priavte university. The costs of the Ivy League schools (and their less-famous but equally-pricey peers) and so on is going up fast, but the cost of the state universities is going up even faster.

Sam Dillon at The New York Times wrote a relatively solid piece that was initially ruined by a bad headline: Colleges Spend More on Recreation Than Class. That headline is not even close to the truth. Education is still the biggest expense at every university. The problem is that rate of spending on things other than instruction is growing faster than the rate of spending on instruction. It's not about the amounts spent in a given year, but about long-term trends in spending. That's why the study is called "Trends in College Spending."

By the time The Times corrected its headline, various other people had picked up the headline's story, based on no facts whatsoever, and run with it. Here's Daniel Lurzner at Washington Monthly, expressing his outrage at the Times's misleading sloppiness. But I would have a lot more sympathy for Lurzner if he had not written his own blog post based on the headline instead of reading the actual article or (heaven forfend!) the Delta Cost Project's report. (or even the Project's press release about the report. I don't ask much.) So Lurzner started to inform his readers, authoritatively, that a
new study by the nonprofit Delta Cost Project demonstrates that American colleges are spending less of their money on actual education and more on administration and recreation.

Again, entirely untrue. The spending on actual education went up, although other spending went up even faster. The Times headline is extremely sloppy. But that's no excuse for Lurzner's own sloppiness. Education is his beat. He's supposed to read what he's reporting on and actually pay attention to it. The fact that the headline did not match the claims in Dillon's article is embarrassing. The fact that Lurzner did not notice that the headline's claim was not backed up by the article itself is worse than embarrassing.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg's news wire reported this (as their lede):
Private research universities spent twice as much as their public counterparts to teach each student in the 2007-08 school year, widening a cost gap that can make private colleges unaffordable to students, without the help of financial aid.

So they get one fact right (private colleges do spend more money on teaching students), but another wrong. The cost gap between private and public college isn't widening. It's narrowing. Public colleges are getting closer and closer to charging Ivy League prices, while spending much less per student. Bloomberg's takeaway is exactly backwards.

(The report does talk about a growing gap between public and private universities, but it's an educational gap. The schools whose students need the most resources have the least resources to give them, and this problem is getting worse. But Bloomberg's reporter either didn't grasp that or didn't care.)

What's depressing about this is that the DCP's expensive, painstaking research doesn't even seem to penetrate the minds of people who cover education stories for a living. Those reporters simply plugged in the conclusions they expected to see, even when the report's conclusions (and its data) say precisely the opposite.

Now, maybe I'm biased because I'm an academic. That means that I have some experience reading articles whose actual claims doesn't quite match the claims made up front. It also means that I have a professional bias toward research that changes the existing narrative rather than confirming it. I don't think conducting an exhaustive ten year study to find out exactly what people already know, or think they know, would be a good use of energy. But I think facts that make us change our minds are interesting. I see the point of doing research as changing people's minds by giving them a clearer, more accurate sense of the world. Perhaps those things are only valued inside the world of higher education. Clearly, at least some of the people who express an interest in "reforming" education don't value them.

Higher education policy is an important issue, in which everyone has a stake. Certainly, higher education is facing serious structural problems, and they need to be thought through carefully. But it will never by fixed by people clinging to their preordained conclusions in defiance of the facts. It's fashionable for people to criticize the hidebound vested interests inside the academy, but at least some of the vested interested outside the academy seem at least as stubborn and resistant to evidence as any "old-fashioned" or "outmoded" academic could ever be. Some people have already decided that they know how to fix what's wrong with America's colleges, and they're not about to let facts get in the way.

cross-posted at Dagblog

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