When an Acorn Hits You in the Head, Make Sure You Know How Many Oak Trees Are Around

Many of us know the children’s story about the hen who is hit in the head by a falling acorn and runs around yelling, “the sky is falling.” She convinces more and more animals to join her to tell the king including the fox who convinces her and her companions that he knows a shortcut to the king. As we all know, the fox takes them to his burrow and kills them all except the hen who forgets about her mission as she escapes the burrow. The moral of the story is that you can be so focused on the wrong thing that you ignore that there is a dangerous person in your midst, ready to take advantage of you.

I feel that way about much of the data that is gathered and reported by many sources in higher education. Many of our policymakers, higher ed reporters, and even administrators and faculty members appear to assume that every college and university should have the same retention and graduation rates as the four-year residential schools that educate our brightest and best students moving from high school to college. Somehow the news has failed to reach them that those students comprise less than 25 percent of all students enrolled in college.

The College Scorecard is another data source that some cite respectfully as the source indicating that not all schools or programs equally provide an ROI to their graduates. Based on the data included, that’s true. However, the Scorecard does not include data from students who do not borrow. In the most recent Texas Higher Education Almanac 57.2 percent of its public institution graduates do not have debt. Assuming many other states are similar, that’s a lot of data from many students for The College Scorecard to exclude. Nonetheless, the policymakers, journalist, and others continue to cite date pulled from The Scorecard as if it represents truth and reality.

What is reality? You must drill down to each institution to find out. Some institutions serve traditional (18-24 y.o., full-time) students only. At some of those institutions, less than half of all graduates borrow money to cover their college costs (like Texas) and at other institutions, more than 80 percent of students borrow money. Other schools serve a non-traditional population whose students work full-time and attend school part-time, taking longer to graduate than the norms. Oddly, the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t collect earnings data for students that don’t borrow, so that data is unavailable to be merged with the earnings data for the students who borrow.

There are some states (Virginia and Texas) that have collected data from their labor departments that report earnings data for all college graduates. When you dive into the details, “all” college graduates exclude college graduates who move out of state, who work in state for out of state employers or who work for the federal government. Depending on the city or county in that state, those graduates could exceed 50 percent as well.

Is this a lecture or a rant? It is both. Anyone familiar with statistics knows that averages can be misleading. Averages are even more misleading when the dataset does not include all data available. If the College Scorecard is to be our “go-to” consumer reporting tool, it needs to include all the data from all students and graduates. If it doesn’t or won’t collect all pertinent data, there need to be large, viewable asterisks or footnotes that warn the reader that the data is not inclusive and may be misleading. Colleges should be allowed to append explanations as well as provide links to additional sources. Our K-20 education system has many problems to solve. Proposed solutions that do not look at the higher education ecosystem equitably are problematic.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence