Crisis Sells: Spinning Data Into Hot Headlines

At a time when higher ed is subject to report cards and other scrutiny about its worth, the news media should more accurately depict the public's opinion, says Keith R. Martel.

October 13, 2015

It’s no secret that higher education in America is in a tight spot.

The cost and worth of college is a hot topic -- from dinner parties to political debates. The majority opinion is that college graduates are significantly dissatisfied with what they are receiving for the price of the “product” they receive.

Gallup released its most recent poll data of college and university alumni through its “Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Report,” which is based on interviews with more than 30,000 graduates. This year, the survey included new questions concerning the “worth” of college. It’s time to step beyond anecdotal evidence and get our hands dirty with some data.

For those of us who fastidiously follow the headlines of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, we initially found that all of our hand-wringing over how the public views higher education might be justified.

Inside Higher Ed led with: “Not Worth It?”

The Chronicle ran: “Just Half of Graduates Strongly Agree Their College Education Was Worth the Cost.” (Note: The article title was changed. The piece was originally entitled, “Just Half of Graduates Say Their College Education Was Worth the Cost.”)

And on Sept. 30, Jeffrey Selingo, former editor of The Chronicle, wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Is College Worth the Cost? Many Recent Graduates Don’t Think So.”

Yikes. The sky is falling, right?

Well, not really. Each of these headlines seems to insinuate that college grads are disgruntled by the cost of their education. However, if we read beyond the headlines, and take even a quick look at the numbers, we find that the sky isn’t falling.

In fact, maybe things are actually better than we imagined.

Gallup’s chart shows alumni responses to the statement: “My education from [university name] was worth the cost.” Respondents answered on a scale from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). While the headlines suggest that alumni are dissatisfied, I find myself reading these numbers differently.

Even if we assume that an answer of three (3) is indicative of “neutral,” we still find that 77 percent of recent alumni either agree or strongly agree with the statement that their college or university education was worth the cost.

I read the data this way: most grads believe that their education was worth the cost. That is good news. Even better news is that only 10 percent disagree or strongly disagree. Some additional good news is that, even though the recent graduates who participated in the survey were less likely to think their education was worth the cost, as they get farther and farther away from commencement -- as they are promoted out of entry-level positions -- their satisfaction regarding the cost of education will probably get better (as the Gallup report indicates).

The Gallup report includes significant data -- including factors that lead to student thriving.

But here is my real point: headlines matter.

In our current context bent on scrutinizing higher education, as we look ahead to report cards, and as we struggle to make a case for the import of this sector of society that has been educating citizens in America for nearly four centuries, let’s at least lead with more accurate headlines -- even if crisis sells.

Here’s what the headlines could have been:

“Is College Worth the Cost? Only 10 Percent of Grads Don’t Think So.”

Same numbers.

Entirely different story.


Keith R. Martel is director of the Master of Arts in Higher Education at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Penn. He is the co-author of the newly released Storied Leadership, a faith-based, narrative approach to leadership.


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