Correcting a Common Misconception About College Graduates and Their Prospects

Single college graduate in gown holding hire me sign

“What do you think the unemployment rate is for 25- to 34- year-olds who graduated from a four year college?” author Quoctrung Bui asked readers of the New York Times.

Hint: for those with only a high school degree, it was 7.4 percent in June 2016.

Before reading on, you should select a number.

The startling thing is that the average response to a Google survey on this issue was 9.2 percent and among NYT readers, the average response was 6.0 percent. Really.

People thought that college graduates had higher unemployment rates than did those with only a high school degree. Bui published this study (“The One Question Most Americans Get Wrong About College Graduates”) only after six months of validation and calibration.

The researchers initially asked an open ended question about unemployment rates for college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 and people responded with typical answers between 20 and 30 percent. Since the actual rate is 2.4 percent, significantly lower than the rate for high school graduates, Bui felt he had asked the question badly. Perhaps people just needed some context to improve their answers.

They conducted telephone interviews, asked friends and neighbors, many of them educators, and re-ran the quiz various ways. They provided the 7.4 percent benchmark for high school graduates and gave multiple-choice options setting a range of answers from 0 to 14 percent. The directional error persisted. People truly think that college graduation worsens employment opportunity.

Bui is understandably alarmed. People who believe this misconception will make poor choices. If this error causes fewer people to attend college, the data show they will suffer higher unemployment. Meanwhile, statistics show that the typical college graduate earns “over half a million dollars more than a non-graduate” during a lifetime.

To his credit, Bui was very careful. As a journalist he asked the hard question: “Are we, the news media, to blame?”

He acknowledges the plethora of articles in recent years featuring high college debt, students returning to live with their parents after graduation, and students who are under-employed, if not un-employed. He worries that these articles create a story line that people accept as the norm. People internalize these stories and create a narrative in which the anecdotes become the baseline, not interesting aberrations. They become viewed as the norm for the life of college graduates, not moments experienced by some, even many, as they journey through the years post-graduation.

I’ve quoted this line from Mark Twain before in my blogs because it is so true: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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John A. Elliott
Dean, UConn School of Business
John A. Elliott is dean of the UConn School of Business, as well as the Auran J. Fox Chair in Business. John is a certified public accountant with professional experience as an auditor and consultant. His research is concentrated on the role of accounting information in financial analysis and contracts. When not attending his son’s athletic events or visiting his daughter and her family, John and his wife, Laura enjoy travel. John is also an avid fan of the UConn men’s and women’sĀ basketball teams.