Making A Fact Based, Data Driven Argument: A Case Study

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When I read this story 2 weeks ago, I was pissed! Once again, I saw a story that I felt presented HBCUs from a deficit perspective, and data was used to make the case.

But I often tell people there is a strong nerd in me. I can spend hours going through various databases trying to compare data points for some purpose- a proposal, a report, a plan, even an opinion piece.

I am sure you may have had a similar experience. But I think what most of us do is complain and then move on. We don’t challenge the author of the publication about the piece. I don’t mind challenging folks when I think they are wrong- I actually like doing it. And this was one I could not let go.

So I tracked down as many Forbes e-mails I could to complain. I sent them all a short note explaining the article was based on a faulty premise. Finally I got a response where I then reiterated my concern. I heard from the author who acknowledged my “perspective” but said it did not warrant a correction.

In the mean time I decided I was going to correct the record so I connect with Inside Higher Ed, a publication I have written for several times, and asked if they would allow me to do a piece to respond to something in another publication. They graciously agreed.

I was pleased at the number of times it was referenced and shared. But I thought I should give the publication one last chance to either delete the story or alter it before I waged an all out campaign against the piece.

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Below you will find some of my argument I used to challenge the piece. The point in sharing is to show how I try to find multiple ways to make an argument, hopefully in a way that is compelling. My new arguments helped me get a call from the editor- great call indeed. And while they kept the story, as you can see, the title and one of the sentenced did change. Sometimes a small victory is just as good. But I had to do more than make a sentimental case.

You have to bring the facts. Lots of them and from different perspectives. So here is some of the additional angles I used to address my concerns:

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The title of the article is “Lower Enrollment Hits Higher Ed Hard, HBCUs The Hardest.” In it, (the author) write(s) “The problems are most pronounced at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which have been plagued by years of slow growth, and more recently, declines in enrollment.” This is prefaced by you mentioning the demographic changes impacting the higher education industry.

I pointed out that both community colleges and for-profits, both sectors of the higher education industry, had greater losses of enrollment than HBCUs from 2010 to 2016 using the exact same database provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics. So the premise of the article that HBCUs are the hardest hit is false (and I know authors often don’t write the titles but your sentence saying the drop is “most pronounced” at HBCUs makes that the thesis of your report).

How again can HBCUs have the most pronounced drop based on stats that prove otherwise? Why doesn’t that call for a correction?

Maybe I need more data. Okay here you go:

Tribal colleges are part of the higher education industry. Their enrollment dropped from 21,225 in 2010 to 16,857 in 2016, or 20.6%. That is more than the 11% at HBCUs. How then can HBCUs be hit the hardest?

And for additional nuance what about women’s colleges? These numbers are tricky as many have changed their mission and added more men. Their enrollment dropped only 2.5% from 2010 to 2016 (85,769 to 83,601), and their enrollment of women dropped 3.7%. But the number of women’s colleges dropped from 46 to 38 in six years, or 17%.

Did you look at United Methodist schools? Any denominational ones? Private liberal arts? Regional publics? How do you say HBCUs are the sector hit the hardest when clearly the data shows otherwise, AND you didn’t look at all?

I then asked myself, maybe Forbes has a different definition for a segment that was “hit the hardest.” So I searched for stories using that phrase. This story was about the salary needed to buy a home and the coastal cities being hit the hardest. They provide an infographic which seems to support the premise of the article. They didn’t say the Midwest was hit the hardest- only one (Chicago) is in the top 9, and the first six are coastal.

If you did an infographic of your HBCU story, HBCUs would be Chicago.

Here is another. This article estimated which states were likely to be “hit hardest” by President Trump’s tariffs. Again, an infographic. If the author wanted to make a case that Trump voting states were hit hardest, the data would support that. They didn’t say that Illinois would be hit hardest even though they would have a hit.

Again, if you had done an infographic for your story, HBCUs would be Illinois.

Last point. Forbes has retracted articles before. In fact, an OPINION piece last year was removed by Forbes that argued Amazon could replace public libraries. After the backlash, Forbes removed it.

In the article it says:

“Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson says in a statement. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.”

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This is how I roll…

The Prez

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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