The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Public Program: Q&A with David Leonhardt, Editor of The Upshot for the New York Times

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Before his talk, "Struggling Toward Meritocracy: The Need for Economic Diversity at Top Colleges," on Wednesday, May 20, Courtney Wong ’15 sat down with David Leonhardt for an interview.

David Leonhardt is a columnist at The New York Times and the editor of The Upshot, a Times website covering politics, policy and other subjects. The recipient of the Pulitzer Price for commentary in 2011, David joined The Times in 1999 as a staff writer and then became the newspaper’s Washington Bureau Chief. He is also the author of the e-single, "Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth," an and New York Times bestseller. He graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Yale University, where he served as the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. 

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lectures on the need for economic diversity at top colleges.

Courtney Wong (CW): In the digital age where newspaper print is becoming more obsolete, The Upshot is a really interesting initiative by The Times that combines online news and data visualization. Why is it so important that we embrace data visualization?

David Leonhardt (DL): To me, the whole job of journalism is to describe reality, let people understand what’s going on in the world, give them facts and perspective, and allow them to connect the dots. Data are among the most powerful tools we have for describing reality. We are lucky that we live in a time when we can get access to vastly more data than we used to have.

When I think about stories I’ve written recently, a whole one part of the process would have been identical to when I first joined the NY Times in 1999. I would have interviewed real people who helped illustrate the trends and findings, and written up some words and quotes, so most of it is basically unchanged. The rest of it is completely revolutionized and so much better. A decade ago, there would have been a little black and white chart that ran on the side of my page that would have illustrated Georgia a different shade of gray than Illinois. And now you can hover over a [digital] map and say, "Oh look, that county is different than this one." The fact that we have more data and that we can use it in new ways, our ability to describe reality is much richer than ever before. We do all these things today that literally would have been impossible a decade ago.

CW: What are the most important obstacles we need to tackle in order to make college more accessible or affordable to low-income groups?

DL: The issues are really different depending on what segment of higher education you are talking about. At colleges like Dartmouth, it's mostly a matter of will on behalf of the institution. That relatively small group of colleges has enough money to do this, and in fact by and large is already doing it. However, they’re not doing it perfectly. The main issue is that they are not recruiting or admitting as many talented, qualified low-income students as are out there. It’s more costly to do so because it means you are spending less money on a building or department, but these colleges generally have the money.

At most colleges, however, the bigger issue is completion rates. They are enrolling an economically more diverse set of students than the Ivy League is, but their graduation rates are lower. When you look at the data of the graduation rates of low-income students at Ivy League colleges, they tend to do very well.

There is a ton of attention on cost as an issue, but I actually don’t think it’s the number one issue. The fact is that the average college graduate today graduates with $25,000 in debt, which is a sum that you can repay with a college diploma. The bigger problem is when students leave with $15,000 in debt and no degree.

CW: You wrote in an article last year that the data clearly state that a college education is "worth it," ("Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say." NY Times, 27 May 2014). But does it matter what kind of college you attend?

DL: I think that the number one thing is that you want to make sure you go to a place where the odds of graduation are high. If you go to college and don’t graduate, it’s a bad deal. People don’t pay enough attention to that. I think when people are deciding among colleges, they don’t even know what the graduation rate is. It also matters where you go to college because colleges are different (economics aren’t everything), and you should go to a college that fits what you want.

CW: You also wrote, "At some point, 15 years or 17 years of education will make more sense as a universal goal," ("Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say." NY Times, 27 May 2014). Do we need more years of education, or do we need to improve the composition and quality of our education?

DL: I think both. There was a time in which people thought high schools should just be for the elite. Now no one says, "Well is high school for everybody?" The economy is vastly more complex than in the day we decided everyone should at least go through 12th grade, so it seems to me only natural that people should go through something longer than that. Is it 15th grade? Is it 17th grade? I would lean towards 17th grade as a goal, but I recognize that it’s okay if we don’t get there for everybody.

One thing I will say is that the people who usually make the argument that not all kids need to go to college tend to send their own kids to college. I think that’s a tip-off that actually aspiring to a 4-year college is the rational thing for the vast majority of the population.

CW: Getting into an Ivy League school, or any competitive university, is becoming more difficult. Is this competitiveness harmful to our society?

DL: I think that it’s probably not healthy, but I don’t think it cracks the list of society’s biggest problems. But having said that, I don’t think it’s healthy. It’s important for people to realize that college is a wonderful experience and it’s deeply important, but we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve exaggerated the differences between different colleges. As a result, a certain segment of the population (upper and middle classes) has turned the college process into something that should be a combination of something joyful and anxiety-producing into something that’s overwhelmingly anxiety-producing. We should dial it back a little and stress less.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences