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Big think tank fails to appreciate Chicago State University

Children with larger feet are better at spelling.

This sentence might seem strange, but it can be shown to be true by using a selective study of legitimate data.

But take a step back and consider all the surrounding factors in the study and one will find children with larger feet are better spellers because they are older. Their age and education make them better spellers, not their foot size.


A Chicago Sun-Times story on April 28, “New College Rankings Give Powerhouse Schools Good Marks; Chicago State gets Dinged,” reports on a new study by the Brookings Institute that attempts to assess the value of a college degree from different universities. The study makes a similar mistake of drawing deceptive conclusions from limited and misleading data.

To understand why the conclusions reached by Brookings are faulty, it is important to understand why Chicago State University is different from most universities, starting with the fact that CSU serves a non-traditional student population. Seventy percent of the students are female, 83 percent are black or Hispanic, the average age is 30 years old and nearly 60 percent of students come from homes below the federal poverty line.

When CSU students graduate they go into the same work force as all other college graduates. There is no shortage of economic data that proves women, African-Americans and Hispanics make less money than their male or Caucasian counterparts. Much like the children with smaller feet, CSU students don’t earn less in the market because they went to CSU, they earn less because they are part of a statistically significant percentage of the working population that feel the effects of unequal pay. It’s an unfortunate fact that deserves more attention and study in and of itself, but the negative portrayal of the value and impact of Chicago State University and its graduates is terribly misleading and fails to address the real problem embedded in economic inequality based on race and gender.

Then there is the methodology itself. The study used to support the article in question collected a majority of the most critical data elements from two social media sites: LinkedIn.com and PayScale.com

There is considerable debate in the research community about the reliability of data from social media sources in particular because such an analysis would imply that all students from all universities are expected to use the LinkedIn.com and PayScale.com websites in the same way. Conservative researchers would likely disregard the use of data from these sites altogether because there is no way to verify the self-reported skill sets of the participants, which was key in Brookings’ determination of Occupational Earning Power.

The only way to truly determine how “fair” a study like this is, is to look at the number of participants from each university from the social media websites and then report on how each university encourages the use of such websites. However, the data used in this study is limited to those alumni who have used the LinkedIn and PayScale websites and, thus, represents only a subgroup of the alumni of the universities.

If the authors of the Brookings study or the Sun-Times story were to encounter one of the thousands of CSU graduates working in and around Chicago today, they would meet a person who most likely was born into a family that experienced real poverty, and despite significant societal challenges, has earned a degree and is now making between $55,000 to $60,000 annually at mid-career.

If the researchers or anybody else understood what those earnings really mean to someone who grew up in a household that had an income of less than $23,000, they might have a better understanding of what “value added” really means.

I caution any parent or student against using these Brookings rankings as a guide when they directly ignore everything from degree programs to job markets to statistics of entering students and the growth that alumni achieve from entry to graduation.

Rev. Fannie M. McCullough is president of the Alumni Board of Chicago State University.