11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yes, Tribune, College is Worth it

Another day, another bogus trend story in the Chicago Tribune, this time on the front page.

The headline "Is College Worth It?" says it all -- the sort of manufactured, fear-inducing question headline typical of the new Trib. The story is almost as disingenuous.

The writer found a cocktail waitress who is making -- well, we don't know how much she is making, because the story doesn't tell us, but apparently it's not enough to pay off $60k in loans piled up while earning a fashion marketing degree. Combine that with the fact that the earnings gap between college grads and high school grads has shrunk (again, no specific numbers here, nor a source) and...voila! You have a trend that "the question of whether higher education is a worthy financial investment is no longer a no-brainer."

Nevermind the fact that college grads still make about 40% more than non-degree holders, as the article notes. Or that the one other "real" person the writer quotes is about to pull in $55k from a major accounting firm.

Now, you can tell a story is confused when the writer is starting a lot of sentences with "But..." This writer does that about six times in the first 20% of the story. It's so over-caveated that it's hard to know where the reporting ends and the stuff the editors steamrolled into the rewrites begins.

After the four dueling graphs that try to describe a thesis, the story goes into tired common-sense information about how if you're going to be a nursery school teacher, you shouldn't spend too much on college. Here's one of several statements that add no information to the reader's understanding of the supposedly new calculus of college attendance.

Does attending an elite college make a difference? The answer is unclear. While some researchers have found that graduates of top schools earn more on average than those from less prestigious institutions, others have found no difference.

By the last few paragraphs, the article is talking about how grads are more likely to donate blood -- if (yet another caveat) people who are likely to give blood don't self-select for college.

There's a case to be made that the value of a college degree is lower than it was, and that that could change your educational decision making. In fact, the Wall Street Journal did a much better story about that last summer. One might also claim that people should be going to cheaper public schools, or applying for more financial aid grants instead of loans (or that the government should spend more money on grants), or actually looking at the job market before applying to a professional degree program. Or even that we're in a bad economy, so recent graduates are having trouble, or that the Chicago fashion industry is in bad shape and not hiring. The Tribune kinda/sorta wrote all of these stories, without doing any of the reporting to make anything stick or memorable. Is college worth it for everyone? No. Is every college worth the price? No. Is any of the content in this story at all original? No.

The "consumer watch" logo (in the print edition) only heightens the absurd notion that this is somehow news. Compared to a real consumer watch story -- about lead in children's toys, for example -- this is embarrassing.

Too bad the insightful, counterintuitive feature on a Highland Park resident deported back to Guatemala didn't make the front page. That's well worth a read.