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Questions About Using EducationData.org as a Source

Thanks to Robert Kelchen for tweeting this concern.

April 21, 2022
 
 

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece in which I forecast that, over time, grad school debt levels are likely to start declining. This is a prediction that I’m holding very loosely and looking for every opportunity to be disproven.

The argument for future declining grad school debt hinges on the possibility that the price of grad school might (and here I stress “might”) be at an inflection point. The combination of the shift from residential to online learning allows master’s students to keep working (reducing the need to borrow money to pay for school and live), and the growth of affordable scaled online degrees might be resetting the master’s market.

In a future post, I’ll try to unpack why this prediction of a long-term trend in graduate school student debt may be wrong.

In this post, I want to express gratitude and share some thoughts about a tweet from Robert Kelchen, head of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Kelchen tweeted,

“Here is another example of someone using a mysterious website called educationdata DOT org as a source. The higher ed community has been trying to figure out its veracity for years. My recommendation: use PowerStats from NCES to quickly pull data.”

This tweet immediately struck a chord, as in writing my post, I had wavered about using the figure from EducationData.org.

What I wrote is that

“According to EducationData.org, the average cost to get a master’s degree is $66,340 and can range between $30,000 and $120,000.”

Like Kelchen, I tried to figure out the background of EducationData.org, as I had some concerns about the accuracy of the numbers.

I included the figure because Forbes also quoted the average master’s cost and cited EducationData.org in a Sept. 9, 2021, article, “What You Need to Know About a Master’s Degree: Costs, Duration and More.”

What caused my initial concern about the $66,340 figure is that it seems high. Maybe I could buy that this is a sticker price, but I’m doubting that the true prices (after discounting/scholarships) are taken into account.

Do you have better data on master’s programs costs that you can share?

I did try to find a better number in some googling but gave up too quickly. (Google’s top result is the EducationData.org figure.)

If Kelchen is concerned about using EducationData.org as a source, I think we need to take that concern seriously. He is an expert on higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. Kelchen’s 2018 book from JHU Press is Higher Education Accountability.

Looking at educationdata.org, it is not clear what precisely the Education Data Initiative is. It may be totally legit. It is just hard to tell.

On the About Page (at the bottom), the site says:

“We’re a team of researchers who believe important discussions in education deserve to start from a place of fact, not opinion. From hot button topics like student loan debt to high school graduation rates, our mission is to make sure the data surrounding these topics is open & accessible.”

While there is a donate button, there is no indication of the source of funding for the site.

One of the main areas of EducationData.org is labeled Refinance. Here, the text reads:

“Find out which of the two dozen lenders we investigated have the lowest refinancing rates and the most honest lending terms and conditions.”

Under that text, there are tables with links to an extensive range of lenders, with included interest rates.

In looking at the site, my theory is that the site is financed by clicks to lenders. It might be that the business model of EducationData.org is to create traffic on their site by creating the “original reports” (their name) on various research topics related to higher education costs and debt.

People who google to find information on higher education statistics, particularly information related to student debt, may also be likely to click on links to banks for student loan refinancing.

Again, there is nothing wrong with creating content to drive advertising. Inside Higher Ed is also partially funded by advertising, as are most other for-profit news sources.

What is potentially concerning about EducationData.org are two things.

First, it should be clear the source of funding behind the site. The About page lists two people on the team. But there is no information if they are the only two people, if the site is part of a larger business and how the content is financed.

Second, the lack of transparency about how the site is funded and run calls into question the confidence we should have in the data that are presented. We don’t know the editorial standards or process utilized in putting out the “reports.”

The report I used in my post—the one cited by the Forbes story—is called “Average Graduate Student Loan Debt.” Again, it looks really legit—with a byline (Melanie Hanson), a date of publication (Oct. 3, 2021), and an indication that the report was “fact checked.” There is a sources page listed.

If nothing else, this seems like an excellent opportunity for Inside Higher Ed (which is transparent in matters of ownership structure, financing and editorial standards) to do what EducationData.org is doing.

I’d much prefer to get educational statistics from a site I understand than a source that is opaque.

From now on, I’ll take Kelchen’s advice and get my higher ed data from sites such as NCES.

And finally, this seems like an example where academic Twitter worked well in exposing potential blind spots (my own) and advancing the conversation.

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