Paul F. Campos shows how not to talk about data

Here Paul F. Campos, a law professor in the University of Colorado system, shows how not to write about data and policy.

1. He cites essentially none of his data. There’s nothing to evaluate here because there’s no way to tell where he’s getting his numbers from. Most of his data gets no citation at all; there’s also a reference to Department of Education data and “an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University.” I don’t know what to do with any of this: where are you getting your numbers?

2. He constantly mixes federal and state spending, which is deeply unhelpful, given that there are profound differences in how state and federal aid can be spent  and how that aid affects students and their tuition dollars. Campos moves breezily from one to the other, talking about Pell grants, a federal program, and then about state appropriations. It’s possible I could sort this stuff out myself… if he had cited his data.

3. Campos is contradicted by other data that actually spells out a methodology and where the numbers came from.

From the Government Accountability Office:

“From fiscal years 2003 through 2012, state funding for all public colleges decreased, while tuition rose. Specifically, state funding decreased by 12 percent overall while median tuition rose 55 percent across all public colleges. The decline in state funding for public colleges may have been due in part to the impact of the recent recession on state budgets. Colleges began receiving less of their total funding from states and increasingly relied on tuition revenue during this period. Tuition revenue for public colleges increased from 17 percent to 25 percent, surpassing state funding by fiscal year 2012, as shown below. Correspondingly, average net tuition, which is the estimated tuition after grant aid is deducted, also increased by 19 percent during this period. These increases have contributed to the decline in college affordability as students and their families are bearing the cost of college as a larger portion of their total family budgets.”

Slightly older numbers from the American Council on Education:

“The NIPA data count $103.7 billion spent by state and local governments on higher education in 2010. This was 34.1 percent of all federal, state, and local government spending and personal expenditures on higher education in 2010, which totaled $304 billion. The state/local share was down from the peak of 60.3 percent in 1975. The Grapevine data count $76.4 billion for public higher education operations in state fiscal support in fiscal 2011. This was $6.30 per $1,000 of state personal income—down from a peak of $10.58 in fiscal 1976.

The 2011 funding effort was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Could they be wrong and Campos be right? Sure. But since they provide me with a methodology and a source for their numbers, and Campos does not, I have to take theirs more seriously. This is particularly the case because they provide valuable state-by-state breakdowns, and Campos speaks almost universally in generalities.

4. You’d get the impression from Campos, as you would from almost everyone who writes about this stuff, that college tuition has been rising faster and faster. In fact, tuition rose fastest in the 1980s and has risen slower since then, according to the College Board and NCES:

Of course rate of increase is less important to individual students than total debt load, but we need to speak carefully about this stuff. It’s way too expensive to go to college, and Campos is right to identify administrative costs as the prime mover. But let’s be rigorous. (Another huge problem, as you can see here, is in the rise of ruinously expensive dorms and dining halls, which I’ve been harping on forever. Unfortunately, colleges keep spending on that stuff– because that’s what incoming students care about.)

4. Campos admits that per-capita funding has fallen since the 1990s, but harps on the total cost to the system. But of course total expenditures are up– we’re educating vastly more students than ever before. According to the National Center for Education statistics, the total enrollment in degree granting institutions rose 11% from 1991-2001, and then a massive 32% from 2001-2011. Of course we’re spending more when we’re educating so many more students! And as that same report states, those students are significantly more likely to be Hispanic or black than in the past. Given the socioeconomic realities of America, we can presume that many of those students are in need of Pell grants, increasing federal expenditure.

Here’s why college spending has grown: we’re sending a far higher number of students to college, and the students were sending are more likely to be from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Meanwhile, the state aid that has been the lifeblood of public education in this country appears to have declined precipitously– at least according to the people who give me a methodology and sources for their numbers.

Will anybody bother to check? Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan? The op/ed editor? His readership? I doubt it. After all, Campos is writing in the august New York Times….

Update: I should say that I like Campos and agree with him on most issues about higher education. I just thought this  piece was misleading.