BC Denounces Flawed Atlantic Article
A recent article posted on TheAtlantic.com claims certain colleges are a waste of money, but a quick look at the author’s research methods and the data used to draw the conclusions shows that the story, itself, is a big waste of time.
March 27, 2014
President David Olive
Bluefield College, a private Christian liberal arts college in southwest Virginia, was among those listed by The Atlantic as a waste of money for students in the article written by Derek Thompson, titled “These U.S. Colleges and Majors Are the Biggest Waste of Money,” March 26, 2014. However, BC administrators and colleagues from other institutions on the list hurriedly and convincingly pointed out the erroneousness of the report.
“This is poor journalism and misstated and incomplete information at best,” said Bluefield’s Trent Argo, vice president for enrollment management. “Many liberal arts colleges are not even on the list. They just left them out completely. Their full list only includes 1,310 colleges in the United States. That means many were left out of the calculations.”
For example, Argo added, none of Kentucky’s liberal arts colleges were included in the report, and a number of Virginia liberal arts colleges were omitted, including Averett University, Sweet Briar College, Ferrum College, Virginia Intermont College, and Emory & Henry College.
The reason for the piecemeal list: incomplete data provided to PayScale.com, The Atlantic’s source for its article rankings. Thompson drew his conclusions based on self-reported data in PayScale’s “2014 College ROI Report,” which means he determined his rankings solely on a limited number of college graduates who responded to a PayScale survey and without any consideration for those who determined the survey wasn’t worth their while.
“As a result,” said Bluefield College President David Olive, “his article is tragically misrepresentative of facts. There is nothing statistical or measurable about the survey in any way.”
In fact, Thompson, himself, admits the weakness of self-reported statistics, stating in his own article that, “self-reported income tends to skew up, because humans are a proud species, and we care more about our feelings than strict honesty with anonymous pollsters.”
In addition, the PayScale report he used not only excludes dozens, possibly hundreds of schools, but also fails to consider a number of key factors that go into measuring the value of a college degree, including sticker price vs. net cost after grants and aid, demographics, local economies, and graduates’ professional preferences. Thompson, again, in an earlier article classifying “which colleges will make you rich,” admits the impact of the absence of these key factors by saying “it’s devilishly difficult to measure the cost and benefit of college.” Bluefield College tends to agree.
“Wages certainly are one important indicator, but there are many other valuable outcomes of a college education, as well,” said Dr. Olive. “Such influences go well beyond the institution or the academic program and often include the mission and nature of the employing organization, cost of living differences between communities, and graduates’ individual preferences. Not everyone chooses to maximize wages over all other considerations.”
Other, more credible sources confirm BC’s position about the Atlantic article, including the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), which recently ranked Bluefield College graduates among the highest earners in the state in its Wages Report for the Virginia Longitudinal Data System.
Required by law and not dependent on self-reporting, SCHEV’s degree and wage data contradicts PayScale’s numbers. In fact, the SCHEV report found that Bluefield College graduates with baccalaureate degrees earn more in their first year on the job than the average four-year graduates from other Virginia colleges. The SCHEV study said that BC grads with four-year degrees earn an average annual salary of $43,442, compared to the statewide average of $36,067 for baccalaureate grads from all other Virginia schools.
As reflected in the SCHEV report, average BC alumni salaries in their first year of employment outpace other Virginia private school four-year degree grads from Emory & Henry College ($27,129), Virginia Intermont College ($27,751), Ferrum College ($27,806), Bridgewater College ($28,913), Randolph-Macon College ($30,621), and Averett University ($40,744), among others.
BC bachelor’s degree graduates, the SCHEV report said, also earn more on average than state school baccalaureate grads from Radford University ($31,825), the College of William and Mary ($34,571), Virginia Commonwealth University ($34,677), James Madison University ($35,224), Old Dominion University ($36,571), Virginia Military Institute ($38,914), Virginia Tech ($38,957), and the University of Virginia ($39,648), among others.
Furthermore, PayScale and The Atlantic also fail to factor in the value effects of student debt after graduation. A recent headline on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site read, “Borrowers’ Average Debt at Graduation Climbs to $29,400,” based on the national average of debt from the graduating class of 2012. Contrary to that trend, at Bluefield College, graduates are leaving the school with just under $21,000 in debt on average. In fact, in many instances BC graduates have less debt than many of the graduates from Virginia’s public universities.
About 90 percent of students at Bluefield College receive financial aid at an average value of $14,127 per year, compared to as little as $3,539 per year at other colleges in the South, according to U.S. News & World Report. In fact, U.S. News ranked Bluefield College 34th among 119 colleges in the South in the level of generosity of financial aid. The result of this generosity: less debt for students. U.S. News ranked BC 16th among the 119 schools in the South in the average total indebtedness of its graduating students.
“This article is a sad commentary on what passes as journalism today and our society’s continual focus on salaries as the major indicator to the quality of one’s education,” noted Dr. Olive. “As I share with prospective students and their families at every Open House, while salaries are important to sustain our lives, families and communities, an education is much more; it’s about the further development of critical thinking and communication skills, as well as following one’s calling and living a life of meaning.”
The Atlantic is a literary and cultural commentary magazine based in Washington, D.C., which, according to its own purpose statement, “advances bold ideas on the urgent issues of our time,” while stirring “vital national conversations through groundbreaking perspectives and a distinctively unbiased approach.”