That Big Study About How the Student Debt Nightmare Is in Your Head? It’s Garbage

Choire Sicha:

Do you see where that says “based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt”? That’s actually quite a bit of a fudge!

What’s the deal with these numbers? GLAD YOU ASKED. It’s not what it sounds like!

Those aren’t households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: “households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to “young” households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

One effect of this age spread sample is that it includes college graduates from up to almost 20 years ago. This is literally not at all a study of college graduates of the last five years, or even ten years. We’re talking about people up to the age of 40, well into Gen X.

Also, in this survey, when there are multiple people in the household, the Brookings Institution simply divided the amount of college debt by number of people in the household. So one person’s $20,000 college debt becomes two people’s $10,000 college debt. This works out mathematically, of course, but not structurally.