In April the Associated Press published a story that’s gotten a lot of attention from education activists. According to the AP, a quarter of all recent college graduates are unemployed, and another quarter are “underemployed” — working part-time jobs, or jobs that don’t require a college degree. Mitt Romney has incorporated this talking point into his campaign speeches, in a highly distorted version that claims — as he did in Wednesday’s debate — that “fifty percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”
It’s a huge leap from 25% to 50%, of course, but the claim hasn’t gotten a lot of pushback — in part because a few weeks ago the Politifact website rated Romney’s version of the stat “Mostly True.” I wrote all this up yesterday, and concluded that while Romney was misstating the facts, the AP had screwed up too and Politifact had made a bad call.
Yesterday afternoon I reached out to the AP’s main source, a Northeastern University economist named Andrew Sum who Politifact had also cited in their coverage of the issue.
He wrote back a few hours later, and said that both the AP and Politifact had bungled the story. Here’s how:
The total adult population of the United States is about 250 million, and the total employed population of the country is about 60% of that. But we don’t go around saying that 40% of the population is unemployed, because that wouldn’t make sense. Some people are retired, others are in school, and others are raising kids or hitchhiking cross-country or choosing not to work for any of a hundred other reasons.
And in compiling at their unemployment statistics for young college-educated Americans, the AP apparently made exactly that error.
According to Professor Sum, the employment rate for young college graduates is “in the high 70s,” within striking distance of the AP’s 75% estimate. But as he points out, that figure includes people who are out of the workforce voluntarily — if you add those who have chosen to go to grad school, for instance, the figure rises above 80%.
I haven’t seen Professor Sum’s data yet (I asked late last night, and haven’t yet heard back), so I can’t say for sure what his figures on college-educated youth unemployment are. But they’re clearly more in line with the 6.8% to 9.4% range that I reported yesterday than the 25% the AP implied (and Politifact endorsed), never mind the 50% in Romney’s attack.
And this stuff matters. It matters because for all the flaws in the American university system, higher education is still a tool for social mobility in this country. Unemployment rates are lower in every age and gender and race category for who have college degrees than for those who don’t, and income averages are far higher. If wildly exaggerated claims of college-grad unemployment have the effect of pushing students out of higher ed, most of those students will suffer. It’s just not right.
And that brings us back to the AP, and to Politifact. Professor Sum says the Associated Press “misrepresented” his findings, and that Politifact “ignored” the corrections he presented to them. In so doing, both news organizations have disseminated false information, provided ammunition to wrongheaded attacks on higher education, misled the nation’s students and policymakers, and given cover to repeated blatantly false statements made by the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States.
Like I say, it’s just not right.
October 7 Update | Still no correction from Politifact, and I’ve noticed another, more egregious version of the error elsewhere on their site.
Back in August, a few weeks before they took on Mitt Romney’s version of the 50% unemployment rate claim, Politifact devoted an article to addressing a near-identical assertion in a presidential election ad put together by a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition. Like Romney, the RJC made the false claim that “one out of every two kids who are graduating college right now can’t find a job.”
Unfortunately, Politifact took the same “not having an ideal job is pretty much the same as not having any job at all” tack here that it would later take with Romney’s claim, and judged the assertion “Mostly True.” Even worse, they misrepresent Professor Sum’s findings even more baldly in this piece than in the September one, claiming — in flat contradiction with what Professor Sum told me about his conclusions — that “according to Sum’s research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job.”
October 16 Update | Still no correction, update, or acknowledgment from Politifact, though I reached out individually to each of the writers, researchers, and editors on the story a week ago today. I sent them all a link to this post via Twitter just now — we’ll see if that helps.