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Attitudes versus Facts

There was an interesting article recently that illustrated the mismatch between the standard indicators of the health of the economy and public beliefs about the economy.
My favorite example was the consistently documented low unemployment rate now present in the United States, contrasted with the widespread public belief that unemployment is high. There are obviously multiple hypotheses about this: impact of news media that emphasize negative stories rather than positive stories (they get more clicks). The media may emphasize layoffs and technological disruptions in occupations more frequently that job growth.

Another reason is that the public’s perception of employment problems is not spurred by the unemployment rate but the very low participation in the labor force. The unemployment rate is a ratio of those not employed to those who are actively seeking work or currently employed. But not since the turn of the millennium have we experienced such high percentages of “discouraged workers” who have opted out of seeking employment because of failure to get a job. When the public is asked about unemployment, they may be thinking about those without jobs, whether or not they are actively looking for work. Thus, there may be a mismatch between the intention of the survey question and the interpretation of the survey question.

A similar mismatch seems to be occurring for attitudes toward higher education.

For some time now, we have been alerted to the financial payoff of a college education. For example, the typical college graduate earns over their lifetime 75% more than those with only a high school diploma. This is over a million dollar benefit in their lives. (The gap may actually be increasing over time.)

A recent set of data from the Pew Research Center reports that only 22% of adults judged that the cost of getting a four-year college degree is worth it even if someone has to take out loans. (About half say the cost is worth it if one doesn’t have to take out loans.). About 40% say that it’s not at all important or not too important to have a college degree to get a well-paying job in today’s economy.

On the other hand, we are reminded almost daily about the cumulative amount of debt that attendees of institutions of higher education carry in the United States.The media and political discourse has focused on that negative outcome. So the clear evidence of financial benefits of a college degree must compete for the attention of the media for the debt load of those who attended college.

It seems like the debt load story triumphs over the story on the financial benefits of a college education.
Once again, there are mismatches between what is measured about the facts of the matter and reports from the public in surveys. Of course, it is possible to hold the belief that a college degree is not necessary to get a high-paying job and also believe the result that the average college graduate earns 75% more than a high school graduate over a lifetime. But other data also suggest that the perceived financial value of a college degree is out of alignment with the measured financial value.

Both of these cases lead to the interpretation that the shaping of attitudes is affected by the tendency of media to emphasize the bad news as a tool to build audience. The good news of a low unemployment rate and stories about important financial gains of a college education are overwhelmed by the news of the harms experienced by the jobless and the debt from higher education.

One thought on “Attitudes versus Facts

  1. Dr. Groves, those were interesting thoughts. I suspect that at least some of the responders to surveys are thinking about people whom they know have obtained jobs in IT based upon vocational education (whether or not the employee also has a university degree) that the survey responders are not considering to be in the category of higher education. Also, people are probably thinking that there are not that many jobs (relatively speaking) available for those seeking a position requiring a relevant degree (nursing being an exception, which shows that factors other than supply and demand along with attractive pay are of importance in career decisions). At the feeling level, survey responders might be merging attitudes about unemployment with attitudes about underemployment — the unemployed steelworker might be viewed as unemployed even if currently doing social work (while still viewing self as an unemployed steelworker), emotional identity trumping* statistical category.

    *trumping being an appropriate word because it hints at why some are looking to an authoritarian figure to reverse emotionally uncomfortable changes in the economy.

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