This tweet from Doug Lederman (@dougledIHE) at Inside Higher Ed has gotten some traction today:
Findings from our new survey of college admissions directors: 22% of them see $30k or more of debt as reasonable. bit.ly/QHy00m
— Doug Lederman (@dougledIHE) October 3, 2012
On the surface, it appears to paint about a quarter of college admissions directors in a bad light. And, it led to reactions like this:
— Kyle Judah (@KyleJudah) October 3, 2012
But, that’s incredibly short-sighted (and, honestly, Kyle Judah should know better), because that stat — “22% of [college admissions directors] see $30k or more of debt as reasonable” — means absolutely nothing on its own. Absolutely nothing. What’s the current average debt load of students at the colleges where those 22 percent work? If their average students have $50,000 in debt now, then $30k would be a massive improvement and, therefore, entirely reasonable. What’s the tuition at those schools? If it’s $37,000 a year, then $30k in debt isn’t even one year’s tuition. It would be like a state school saying it was reasonable for their students to graduate with $8,000 in debt. It’s all a matter of perspective, and that perspective is entirely situational.
This is another example of a number with no context being used in ways that are at least not entirely appropriate, and at worst are intentionally misleading. When tuition costs vary so radically between different types of schools, painting them all with the same brush is unreasonable.
The study even leads with a qualification that while 22 percent of directors surveyed think debt could comfortably be in the $30,000 range, the number of private-school directors who feel that way is 28 percent; so, the response by the private schools is definitely skewing the overall average upward. In fact, 77 percent of the private-college respondents said that debt above $20,000 was acceptable. That’s absolutely going to inflate the overall average, when two-year respondents agreed to that level or higher at a rate of 43%, and public four-years at a rate of 44%.
Student debt is too important a subject to get tangled up in lazy math.